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International funding for Hodgkin’s disease vaccine research

QIMR scientists are one step closer to an immunotherapy vaccine against Hodgkin’s disease and a form of naso-pharyngeal cancer (NPC) after receiving a prestigious grant from the USA’s National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This is the first ever grant in the world allocated by NIH to medical researchers to develop a vaccine against Hodgkin’s disease (a form of lymphoma).

Approximately 50% of Hodgkin’s disease (HD) is associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which also causes glandular fever. The malignant cells in EBV-associated HD (referred to as Reed-Sternberg cells) are infected with EBV and express some EBV proteins that have been considered as potential candidates for vaccine development.

A recent study by Danish scientists indicated that young people who have a history of glandular fever show an increased chance of developing HD. Although considerable progress has been made towards the successful treatment of HD, a significant proportion (20-30%) of patients relapse with HD and standard treatment strategies (radiation and chemotherapy) in the relapse group are often not very helpful.

Studies by QIMR scientists in the Clive Berghofer Cancer Research Centre have shown that many of the HD patients show poor killer T cell response against the viral proteins expressed in Reed-Sternberg cells. Over the last 12 months QIMR scientists have developed a novel therapeutic vaccine for the treatment of HD which is designed to induce strong killer T cell response to viral proteins expressed in Reed-Sternberg cells. This research, published in the prestigious medical journal Cancer Research, has shown that immunization with HD vaccine can clear HD-like cancers from animals.

The NIH funding will allow further development and testing of this vaccine and will lead to clinical trials in human patients. It is very likely that the first clinical trial for this vaccine will start in late 2004.

This same vaccine could also be used for treating another EBV-associated cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). NPC is one of the leading cause of cancer-related death in China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and other countries in South-East Asia, with over 100,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Due to the changing demographics of the world, increasing numbers of NPC cases have also been seen in Australia and other western countries. As in HD, cancer cells in NPC are also infected with EBV and express similar viral proteins. Thus a successful vaccine for HD is very likely to be effective against NPC as well. Data from preliminary studies at QIMR were published last year in the leading medical journal,Blood.