Personalized cancer vaccines show strong anti-tumor response - Axios
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Personalized cancer vaccines show strong anti-tumor response

Metastatic melanoma cells Photo: Julio C. Valencia / NCI Center for Cancer Research

For the first time, scientists showed that personal vaccines targeting existing cancer tumors are feasible and safe in humans, via two separate, small clinical studies published Wednesday in Nature (here and here).

In fact, both studies reported that around 60% of their patients with advanced-stage melanoma were tumor-free for 12 to 32 months after receiving their personalized vaccine regimen. And, all of the patients showed some level of T-cell immune response — usually a strong level — after the vaccinations, meaning that, at the very least, the shots appear to jumpstart the immune system.

"Finally. The war against cancer really started 40 years ago but we have just started being smarter" on tackling it, Siwen Hu-Lieskovan, UCLA oncologist who was not part of these studies, told Axios. "Instead of trying to burn, poison or cut [the cancer] out, we've become smarter. We can utilize the patient's own immune system as a weapon against cancer."

Yes, but: These studies are both very small (one vaccinated 6 people, the other 13), which means it is "not overwhelming evidence," Hu-Lieskovan said. Other serious limitations include the overall cost and the long lag time between biopsying the tumor and sequencing the mutations to developing the vaccines (ranging from 3 to 5 months, although the process now is more automated, reducing the needed time).

Both studies:

  • Selected melanoma patients with high risk of recurrence, because this cancer is known to usually respond to immunotherapy (so if the scientists can't get a response from melanoma, they know it would very difficult to get it from other cancers).
  • Decided to target the neoantigen proteins on the cell surface that are produced by DNA mutations. Neoantigens are present in cancer cells but not in normal cells, making them an ideal tumor-specific target for immune therapy.
  • Showed negligible side effects from the vaccines.
  • Post vaccination results included: a lower-than-expected level of tumor recurrence, a significantly lower rate of metastasis, and showed that the addition of other immunotherapy treatments (like anti-PD-1) is usually very effective for those cases where there was tumor growth.

While the studies show many similarities, they used different steps to reach their conclusion.

U.S. vaccine study details: The scientists selected 10 people for their study, and determined 6 were eligible for the vaccine. The team operated and removed the patients' tumors, sequenced tumor and normal cells, selected up to 20 mutations/person, and made the peptides to put into the vaccine. The vaccines, which were started an average of 18 weeks after the surgery, were injected subcutaneously into four sites, five times over three weeks plus two booster shots later.

  • Out of the 6 who received the vaccine, 4 showed no evidence of cancer recurrence. The other 2 patients showed cancer had spread to the lungs, and they received an additional treatment of a PD-1 inhibitor, later showing a complete resolution of their tumors.

"We found strong immune response in all 6 patients that were vaccinated," Dana Farber's Patrick Ott, a study author, told Axios. "What the vaccine can do is to steer the immune response specifically to the cancer."

E.U. vaccine study details: This team selected 13 people, took samples of tumor and blood cells, sequenced everything, selected up to 10 different mutated neoantigens per person and engineered it into synthetic RNAs, which were injected into the lymph nodes for up to 20 doses per patient.

  • Out of the 13 who received the vaccine, 8 remained free of tumors and the remaining 5 had tumor relapses. Out of the remaining, two died, one had complete regression of tumors after being given a PD-1 inhibitor, and one had a mutation that did not allow the the vaccine to work.

Ugur Sahin, study author and CEO of BioNTech, said, "Although the study was not designed to see clinical efficacy, we found early evidence for the anti-tumoral activity of the vaccine."

Further study needed: "The two studies confirm the potential of this type of approach, and improvements in neoantigen prediction will probably allow the even more efficient and precise identification of neoantigens for use in therapeutic vaccines in the future. Although the numbers of people who were treated in these studies were small, both studies indicated potential benefits," cancer immunologist Cornelis Melief wrote in his Nature commentary on the studies.

Melief said controlled, randomized phase II clinical trials with more participants are needed to establish the efficacy of these vaccines in patients with any type of cancer that have neoantigen targets.

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New study links underweight babies to nearby fracking sites

Brennan Linsley/AP

Women living within half a mile from hydraulic fracturing sites are 25% more likely to have babies with low birth weight than mothers who lived more than two miles beyond the sites, according to a new study released Wednesday.

Why it matters: The findings by researchers at the University of Chicago, Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that hydraulic fracturing — a technique used to force out oil and natural gas from the earth — imposes negative health impacts on locals despite the enormous economic benefits it generates. While most drilling operations are in remote areas, some sites in places that are heavily populated.

However, the researchers told The Washington Post that their intention was not to condemn fracking, adding that “There’s a big effect within one kilometer of sites, which the oil and gas industry dislikes, but the impact on the population beyond that may not be massive, which opponents of fracking won’t like.”

How it was done: Researchers examined the weights of more than 1.1 million infants born to mothers living at different distances from active sites in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013, when hydraulic fracking transformed the state into a major producer of natural gas.

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2016’s record heat not possible without climate change, says report

Somalians receive water on April 2, 2017 during extreme drought. Photo: Arif Hudaverdi Yaman / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

At least three instances of extreme weather would not have happened without climate change, according to the American Meterological Society’s annual report on extreme weather and climate change. Past reports found certain weather events were ‘influenced’ or made more frequent by climate change, but the tools researchers used weren’t powerful enough to measure just how much climate change played a role. This is the first time the report has definitively pointed the finger at global warming.

Why it matters: These weather anomalies are becoming more common, say the report authors, and they can have massive health and economic impacts. If the role climate change played in causing them can be pinpointed, researchers may be able to better predict how climate change might impact our future. For example, by understanding how marine heat waves change weather, scientists were able to predict the 2016/2017 Somalian drought, and mitigate some of the loss of life.

What they did: Researchers create models of the world’s weather with and without the influence of human-caused climate change. Then, they quantify the likelihood of the differences between the two occurring by chance. Models like this have been used to effectively predict the impacts of climate events like El Nino and La Nina.

They found three major weather events “could not have happened without climate change:

  • 2016 was the hottest year on record. The authors of the paper say this heat record “was only possible” because of the 100 years of human influence of the climate.
  • The record heat wave over Asia “would not have been possible” without climate change.
  • “The Blob”, a mass of extremely warm water that was primarily concentrated in the Bering Sea, but changed sea temperatures along most of the West Coast, “could not be explained without” climate change.

The impact: The global heat record and heatwave in Asia caused deaths, fires and crop loss, and the Blob caused fish stocks to crash, harmed seabird populations and led to harmful algal blooms that closed fisheries along the length West Coast.

“We’ve known for a long time that climate change can alter the risk of some of these extremes,” says Stephanie Herring, an author on the report and scientist with NOAA, but “it always fell in the realm of possibility that they could have happened without climate change.”

There were also several weather events identified in the report that were made worse by climate change. Herring highlighted:

  • The extreme warming in the Arctic. One paper said this “most likely” couldn’t have happened without climate change, but stopped short of speaking with certainty.
  • The Great Barrier Reef bleaching event was made more extreme by stress from ocean warming, which was caused by humans.
  • Drought-related food shortages in Africa were made worse by climate change, according to two separate studies.

Yes, but: Not all extreme weather was related to climate change — snow storm Jonas, for example, did not appear to be linked to global warming. Over 130 papers have been published since the report was first created, and over half failed to find an association between climate change and the event they were examining.

The report does not set out to prove that climate change is influencing extreme weather. Instead, it aims to hold such claims to high standards of scientific rigor, and help improve the methodology used to pinpoint the specific impacts of climate change.

Looking forward: We’re entering a new era of how we talk about extreme weather, according to Jeff Rosenfeld, editor and chief of the bulletin of the American Meteorolgical Society. “We can no longer be shy talking about the connection between human-caused climate change and extreme weather.”

Chris Funk, a researcher with the USGS who was also involved in the report, adds that now “culturally and scientifically, we need to expect the unexpected” and learn how to deal with our extreme weather as the new normal.

The bottom line: Scientists are now saying that they’re ‘virtually certain’ specific extreme weather events would not happen without climate change. “I’ve never seen that sort of language until now,” says Rosenfeld. “’Virtually certain’ is almost unheard of.”

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Inside Alphabet's big anti-aging bet

Calico chief computing officer Daphne Koller. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty

Anti-aging company Calico has remained fairly quiet since being formed in 2013 via around a $1 billion investment from Google. But that changed a bit today when senior executive Daphne Koller was interviewed at a San Francisco conference hosted by CB Insights:

Aging is a universal societal problem.
— Daphne Koller, Calico's chief computing officer and former CEO of Coursera

Koller says that Calico's primary research involves 750 mice, which are broken into five groups based on different regimes of caloric intake. The idea is to get a better sense of the aging trajectory of mammalian organisms and how caloric intake — the "one intervention shown to extend life among multiple species" — can also be affected by genetics and the environment.

  • One major difficulty of anti-aging work is that Calico needs to have complete data on an organism from life to death. If the company eventually begins clinical research on humans, it means those who begin a study are unlikely to be around to finish it.

Calico also is exploring the issue of cellular aging since, as Koller says, "as cells age, a lot of stuff begins to go wrong." It's using yeast cells for this research, and its engineers have developed a "yeast tracker" so they can determine the age of a yeast cell without having to constantly stare into a microscope or review countless hours of video to identify cell divisions.

"I don’t think we’re secretive so much as we don’t like to talk about our work until it’s complete," Koller said.

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Harvey's extreme rainfall due to climate change

Woman and family look out at floodwaters caused by Harvey in Houston, TX. Photo: Charlie Riedel / AP

Rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, which struck Houston over the summer, was at least 15% heavier due to human caused climate change, according to two independent studies by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. Hurricanes like Harvey are also three times more likely today than in 1900, researchers reported.

Why it matters: This isn't the first time scientists have attributed violent weather events to a warming planet, The Washington Post reports. Scientists have also warned of the increased likelihood of droughts such as the one in Texas in 2010 and floods similar to Colorado's in 2013. These findings suggest cities and communities may need to reassess their risk and find new ways to prepare for harsher weather as climate change continues.

The studies:

  1. Researchers in the Netherlands found the storm's precipitation was 15% more intense due to climate change compared to a similar storm in the early 1900s. They also reported "a deluge such as Harvey would have occurred in the region once every 2,400 years in the pre-warming period but that it is now a 1-in-800 year event — and is becoming more likely," per The Post.
  2. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory team found that rainfall was increased by at least 19% and as much as 38%, and that the chances of a storm with as much rainfall has at least tripled since the 1900s.
“We have two independent efforts with essentially the same answer. There’s a clear human fingerprint. The numbers will undoubtedly change as more researchers look at this with different techniques, and perhaps different data sets and different methods. But our numbers are kind of big.”
— Michael Wehner, senior staff scientist at Berkeley

How it works: "Climate change, caused by increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, is raising temperatures globally. Warmer air can carry more moisture, which can lead to more extreme rainfall events, and warmer ocean surface temperatures are known to intensify the most powerful hurricanes," according to the press release from the American Geophysical Union fall meeting taking place this week.

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What drones can teach us about volcanic eruptions

The Poás volcano as it erupts, taken by drone. Photo: Maarten J de Moor / OVISCORI

NEW ORLEANS — The Poás volcano in Costa Rica erupted suddenly and violently in late April, hurling chunks of rock into the air, destroying a nearby observation platform and wrecking a single piece of monitoring equipment: a sensor recording gas concentrations in the bottom of the crater. Since it’s not a good idea to walk into the heart of an erupting volcano, Maarten J de Moor, a volcanologist at OVISCORI in Costa Rica, sent in a drone.

Why it matters: de Moor’s drone (and his destroyed sensor) recorded changes in gas concentrations before the eruption, which he presented at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Such changes can signal if, and when, a volcano might erupt, and may even indicate how large the eruption will be. “If we can measure the gas compositions during eruptions, we can learn about those eruption processes,” says de Moor.

There are several different ways to monitor a volcano, including:

The old-fashioned way, where you dress head-to-toe in protective gear and gather fumes from a vent with a test-tube.

  • Pros: More tests can be run in the lab than can be run by an instrument.
  • Cons: It’s slow and can take months to do. And, although you can learn a lot about the volcano, real-time data is necessary to learn more about eruptions.

With a permanent sensor, like the MultiGAS sensor de Moor used.

  • Pros: Real-time monitoring of the volcano, from the volcanic crater itself.
  • Cons: These sensors can only measure the fluctuations of a few gases — so they're good for monitoring, but more detailed lab assessments are still necessary.

With a sensor (in de Moor's case, a miniature MultiGAS) attached to a drone.

  • Pros: You can fly into an active volcano after the eruption begins and get a birds-eye view with a camera.
  • Cons: Drones can only fly for so long on one battery charge, so monitoring isn't constant. Also, volcanos aren't very hospitable environments. de Moor estmates he can get about 20 flights out of a drone before it's destroyed — he lost one studying a different volcano already.

Yes, but gas sensors aren’t the only thing you can attach to a drone, and inactive volcanoes are also worth monitoring. That's why Einat Lev trekked for days to a remote Chilean volcano (accompanied by an entourage of horses and grad students), hauling batteries, an electric generator and a drone.

What she did: Lev, a volcanologist at Columbia University, uses the unmanned vehicles to scan the topography of cooled lava flows. Although you can get some idea of lava flow structure by looking at satellite images, the level of detail provided by drone can't be matched. By measuring the rocky dips and ridges, she can infer how fast the lava was moving, how hot it was, how liquid or solid it was. Lev also presented her findings at the meeting.

Why she did it: If we learn how a volcano erupted in the past, we might better understand how the same — or a different — volcano might erupt under similar circumstances.

A bonus: Drones might seem expensive, but it costs way more to do this sort of research from a helicopter.

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Federal report shows the Arctic warming at an "unprecedented" rate

An icebergs floats in the Nuup Kangerlua Fjord near Nuuk in southwestern Greenland. Photo: David Goldman / AP

A group of 85 scientists reported on Tuesday that the Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet and "that the current decline of Arctic sea ice is 'outside of the range of natural variability and unprecedented' in the past 1,450 years," reports Chris Mooney in The Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2017 Arctic Report Card presented on Tuesday raises again the question of the Trump administration's stance on climate change. President of the Woods Hole Research Center, Phil Duffy, told the Post the report "is completely at odds with the policies and statements of the Trump administration."

  • The consequences: According to the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, an increase in mobility of floating ice sheets poses a danger to naval submarines. And, according to the Post the ice is "thinner and less long-lived, and it rarely remains frozen throughout the summer and into the next winter."
  • A new section of the report also shows surface temperatures are rising at a rate "unprecedented in...the past 2,000 years," per the Post.
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New volcanic island may tell us about Mars' past

A new island formed from the ash of an underwater volcanic eruption in the South Pacific was initially projected to last a few months, but could exist for 6 to 30 years, according to a new NASA study released on Monday. Researchers have used satellite imagery to study the island in the South Pacific since 2015 and have an “unprecedented view from space of its early life and evolution," the agency said in a statement.

Why it matters: Studying the development and erosion of the island offers scientists a nuanced understanding of volcanic features on Mars that appear to have erupted underwater, “providing clues about when the red planet was wet several billion years ago,” the New York Times reports.

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400,000 young children in Congo could starve to death

A young boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: Jerome Delay / AP

There are at least 400,000 severely malnourished children under 5 years old living in the Democratic Republic of Congo who could die within months without emergency intervention, UNICEF warned today.

The gritty details: After 18 months of conflict, displaced people and poor harvests, these children in the Kasai region are the most vulnerable in a population of 750,000 acutely malnourished children in what some say could become the "biggest emergency of 2018."

"With so many humanitarian crises worldwide, the situation in DRC is at risk of being ignored while it develops into the biggest emergency of 2018."
— Mohammed Abdiker, director of operations and emergencies at the International Organisation for Migration, said on Tuesday.

Driving the news: Violence, food insecurity and devastated health facilities have created a desperate climate in the Kasai region.

  • There have been ongoing fights between local rebel groups and government troups in the Kasai region after tribal chieftain and rebel Kamwina Nsapu was killed last year, Yahoo reports.
  • Due to this unrest as well as the everyday, ongoing violence in the African country, 3.9 million people have been displaced in DRC, according to the UN refugee report.
  • In addition, there's been a year and a half of poor agriculture — and having missed planting season, there is not likely to be a harvest in June.
  • About 220 health centers were destroyed, looted or damaged in Kasai, leading to reduced access to health care and an increased risk in the spread of communicable diseases, UNICEF says.

The big picture: DRC joins a growing list of humanitarian crises, including growing famine and disease in Yemen.

To help, donate to Unicef, Save the Children or Action Against Hunger.

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Cassini finds Saturn's rings change the planet's atmosphere

Saturn's rings cast a narrow shadow on the planet in a 2009 image from Cassini. Image: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

Shadows from Saturn's rings can affect the planet's atmosphere, according to an analysis of data collected by the Cassini-Hyugens spacecraft during its final dives into the gaseous planet's upper atmosphere earlier this year. The work was presented yesterday at the American Geophysical Union conference and will be published this week in the journal Science.

Why it matters: These are the first direct measurements of Saturn's ionsophere as opposed to remote sensing observations, study author William Kurth from the University of Iowa tells Axios. Much of our knowledge of other planets is based on that about Earth, with modifications to account for what we know to be different. By sampling the ionosphere of Saturn, Kurth says researchers can begin to check these modified theories. "An important outcome, though, is that the improved theories incorporating things we learn at other planets, should help us understand our own planet better than we do."

Sound smart: The ionosphere is an upper layer of a planet's atmosphere that is electrically charged by the Sun's ultraviolet radiation. Saturn's extends from 300 km - 5,000 km above its surface. (Earth also has one. Ditto Jupiter. It is where auroras occur. )

How it works: Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can separate an electron from an atom of hydrogen or helium, charging the ionosphere. Parts of the ionosphere in the shadow of Saturn's A- and B-rings have a lower density of free electrons than other regions, suggesting the rings may be blocking the Sun's UV radiation.

Yes, but: The shadows account for some of the variations Cassini measured, but not all, the researchers said. One possibility is ice particles from the rings may interact with electrons in the ionosphere in certain places during a so-called "ring rain." Another is winds may be blowing the particles or the UV radiation from the Sun itself may vary.

What's next: The researchers analyzed data collected from just one of Cassini's probes and from the first 11 of its 22 dives so there is more to be studied.

"This [Cassini] data set will eventually provide a deep understanding of the ionosphere and its interaction with the rings. These analyses will continue not only this year, but for decades to come," says Kurth. "New questions will come from these studies and provide the basis for possible return missions to the Saturnian system."

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Weighing the benefits and risks of birth control pills

A birth control pill dispenser. Photo: Mike Derer / AP

A recent Danish study linked hormonal birth control to an increased risk of breast cancer, but the same contraceptives have also been shown to protect against certain less common cancers, such as endometrial and ovarian, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The study published last week raised alarm with its conclusion that users of hormonal birth control see about a 20% increased risk of developing breast cancer. But "it’s really problematic to look at one outcome in isolation. Hormonal contraception has a complex matrix of benefits and risks, and you need to look at the overall pattern," JoAnn E. Manson, a professor of women’s health at Harvard Medical School, told the Times.

The results: A British study that followed 46,000 women from 1968 to 2012 found birth control pill users had increased risks of breast and cervical cancers, but the overall cancer rates among users and non-users was equalized by the fact that users were less likely to develop other cancers.

“There is good data to show that five or more years of oral contraceptive use substantially reduces ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer risk, and may reduce colorectal cancer. And the protection persists for 10 or 20 years after cessation" of use, David J. Hunter, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Oxford told the Times.