Exploiting Neoantigens, the Traces Cancer Leaves Behind in our Genes

Deputy Director and Executive Director, Center for Immunotherapy
Friday, April 14, 2017 - 10:24am
How do neoantigens contribute to cancer immunotherapy research and help make cancer vaccines a possibility? Dr. Kunle Odunsi, Executive Director, Center for Immunotherapy at Roswell Park, explains the role of neoantigens in immunotherapy for cancer.

In December, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) announced a major collaboration focused on an emerging area of cancer research: neoantigens. These small proteins on the surface of cancer cells arise from mutations often unique to a tumor, making personalized immunotherapies like cancer vaccines a possibility.

Roswell Park is proud to have been part of this exciting collaboration — the Tumor neoantigEn SeLection Alliance, or TESLA — from its inception. The consortium brings together 30 of the world’s leading cancer neoantigen research groups to help accelerate the discovery of personalized cancer immunotherapies.

Why do we see such promise within neoantigens?

When cancer develops, it alters our genes in a way that leaves a permanent trace. For so long, these traces were a disguise that helped cancer to hide itself and evade our attempts to eradicate it from the body. But now, thanks to very rapid advances in technology, it is possible to sequence the entire human genome within a short period of time, yielding a trove of information that can help us to predict, understand and exploit these neoantigens through targeted immunotherapy with vaccines.

We’re simply taking advantage of what the cancer cell does to survive — the change that has occurred in the genetic landscape of the cancer cell — to educate the immune system to recognize and kill the cancer cells. We expect, based on early studies in this emerging area, that this may become a very effective and powerful strategy to treat each patient’s cancer in a targeted way. And because of the personalized nature of the treatment, we also would expect to see fewer side effects.

The neoantigen alliance has united a group of researchers all working to tap this wealth of mutational information and determine how best to deploy this resource in order to treat cancer patients. Roswell Park has built a robust program in neoantigen discovery, and will be launching a clinical trial of these personalized neoantigen vaccines in the near future. We’re very excited about what we will contribute to this collaborative effort and what we’ll learn from our colleagues around the world. My hope and expectation is that these efforts will result in new, highly personalized and dramatically effective therapies.