World's first lung cancer vaccine being developed at Oxford and UCL - but 'it's no substitute for quitting smoking'

22 March 2024, 08:40

The vaccine could prevent many people from getting cancer
The vaccine could prevent many people from getting cancer. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

Scientists are working on the world's first lung cancer vaccine that would prevent people at high risk from catching the disease.

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Researchers at Oxford University and UCL have been given £1.7 million to work on the LungVax vaccine, which would use similar science to the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab.

The vaccine would use a strand of DNA that trains the immune system to recognise and kill specific proteins in lung cancer cells.

The jab could prevent 90% of all lung cancers, according to early modelling and previous research.

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Smoking causes most lung cancers
Smoking causes most lung cancers. Picture: Alamy

If the scientists can show the immune response works, it will go into clinical trials. The later trials could include people aged 55-74 who are current or previous smokers.

Some 48,500 people are diagnosed with of lung cancer every year in the UK, and 72% of lung cancers are caused by smoking.

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But this vaccine could be a "really important step" towards making cancer more preventable, said Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Reseach UK, one of the donors to the vaccine development programme.

She added: “The science that successfully steered the world out of the pandemic could soon be guiding us toward a future where people can live longer, better lives free from the fear of cancer.

“Projects like LungVax are a really important step forward into an exciting future, where cancer is much more preventable. We’re in a golden age of research and this is one of many projects which we hope will transform lung cancer survival.”

Fewer than 10% of people with lung cancer currently survive over ten years, and UCL's Professor Mariam Jamal-Hanjani, who will be leading the clinical trial, said "that must change".

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She added: "This research complements existing efforts through lung health checks to detect lung cancer earlier in people who are at greatest risk.

“We think the vaccine could cover around 90% of all lung cancers, based on our computer models and previous research, and this funding will allow us to take the vital first steps towards trials in patients.

“LungVax will not replace stopping smoking as the best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer. But it could offer a viable route to preventing some of the earliest stage cancers from emerging in the first place.”

One of the reasons that cancer is so hard to treat and prevent is that our bodies find it difficult to differentiate between normal cells and cancer cells.

Kidani Professor of Immuno-oncology at the University of Oxford and research lead for the LungVax project, Professor Tim Elliott, said: "Getting the immune system to recognise and attack cancer is one of the biggest challenges in cancer research today.

“This research could deliver an off-the-shelf vaccine based on Oxford’s vaccine technology, which proved itself in the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If we can replicate the kind of success seen in trials during the pandemic, we could save the lives of tens of thousands of people every year in the UK alone.”

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