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    Cancer Vaccine Ups Melanoma Survival

    Experimental Vaccine Also Fights Kidney, Colon, Other Cancers

    Earlier Treatment, Better Results? continued...

    Such patients -- who run a high risk of having their cancer come back -- may be the ones who benefit most from Oncophage.

    "The most rational application of this and all cancer-vaccine modalities will be the use of this vaccine for surgically treated patients who do not have any tumor remaining at all," Kirkwood says.

    That may very well turn out to be the case, says Garo Armen, PhD, Antigenics Inc. chairman and CEO.

    "If we can make a fundamental improvement in melanoma treatment, it would be terrific," Armen tells WebMD. "It is our opinion that Oncophage would be most effective in patients who are slightly earlier in the course of disease than traditional end-stage patients. This particular trial gives us an indication of that. We tested the vaccine in late-stage melanoma, in patients with an expected survival of six to 12 months -- but the healthier patients did much better. That is pretty much as our scientific information has told us it should be."

    As a melanoma vaccine, Oncophage is still experimental. The next clinical trial -- the one on which FDA approval would depend -- is still in the planning stages.

    However, since Oncophage is made from a patient's own tumor cells, it can be used in nearly any kind of cancer. The only limiting factor, Armen and Kirkwood say, is whether there is enough tumor to make the vaccine. About 3 to 7 grams are needed, as multiple injections work better than just a few.

    A clinical trial in patients with late-stage kidney cancer is drawing to a close. If the vaccine works in these patients -- and earlier trials suggest that it may -- the trial could be used to apply for FDA approval.

    How Oncophage Works

    Oncophage takes advantage of a sticky kind of protein called a heat shock protein or HSP. The body is full of HSPs. HSPs do a lot of things. One thing they do is to chaperone cellular proteins by helping them form correctly and moving them from one place to another.

    When a diseased cell dies, HSPs carry little snips of the dead cell's proteins to the immune system. Some of these protein snips are antigens that help the immune system seek out and destroy other cells with the same disease.

    To make Oncophage, Antigenics takes tumor cells removed from a patient and breaks them open. HSPs carrying tumor antigens are removed and used to make the vaccine.

    Making an individualized vaccine isn't cheap. Antigenics thinks a course of treatment will cost $10,000 to $20,000.

    Currently, researchers are studying the use of Oncophage vaccines for kidney cancer, melanoma, pancreatic cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, colorectal cancer, and gastric cancer.

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