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Researchers at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, the Francis Crick Institute and University College London have been granted £1.7 million of funding from Cancer Research UK and the CRIS Cancer Foundation to develop a lung cancer vaccine. The group includes Professor Tim Elliott, Kidani Professor of Immuno-oncology at NDM.

The ‘LungVax’ vaccine uses technology similar to the highly successful Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The team will receive funding for the study over the next 2 years to support lab research and initial manufacturing of 3,000 doses of the vaccine at the Oxford Clinical BioManufacturing Facility.

Lung cancer cells look different from normal cells due to having “red flag” proteins called neoantigens. Neoantigens appear on the surface of the cell because of cancer-causing mutations within the cell’s DNA.

The LungVax vaccine will carry a strand of DNA which trains the immune system to recognise these neoantigens in abnormal lung cells. The LungVax vaccine will activate the immune system to kill these cells and stop lung cancer.

In this study, the scientists are developing this vaccine in the lab to show that it successfully triggers an immune response. If this work is successful, the vaccine will move straight into a clinical trial. If the subsequent early trial delivers promising results, the vaccine could then be scaled up to bigger trials for people at high risk of lung cancer. This could include people aged 55-74 who are current smokers, or have previously smoked, and currently qualify for targeted lung health checks in some parts of the UK.

There are around 48,500 cases of lung cancer every year in the UK. 72% of lung cancers are caused by smoking, which is the biggest preventable cause of cancer worldwide.

Professor Tim Elliott, Kidani Professor of Immuno-oncology, Co-Director of the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre and research lead for the LungVax project, said: 'Cancer is a disease of our bodies and it’s hard for the immune system to distinguish between what’s normal and what’s cancer. 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.'

Professor Sarah Blagden, Professor of Experimental Oncology at the University of Oxford and founder of the LungVax project, said: 'When given to people with cancer at its earliest stages, anti-cancer treatments are more likely to be successful. We are developing a vaccine to stop the formation of lung cancer in people at high risk. This is an important step forward in preventing this devastating disease.'

Professor Mariam Jamal-Hanjani of University College London and the Francis Crick Institute, who will be leading the LungVax clinical trial, said: 'Fewer than 10% of people with lung cancer survive their disease for 10 years or more. That must change. 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.'

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said: '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.'

Lola Manterola, President of CRIS Cancer Foundation, said: 'We are at a crucial moment in the history of cancer research and treatment. For the first time, technology and knowledge of the immune system are allowing us to take the first steps towards preventing cancer. This groundbreaking study represents a firm step in that direction, and we at CRIS consider it essential to support it.'