Doctor on the cusp of a cancer cure: Sjöberg Prize-winning oncologist whose discovery means killer disease could be treated with a vaccine in years to come

Dr Wu’s obsession with the immune system began after she watched bone marrow transplants as a medical intern

When asked by her second grade teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up, Catherine Wu drew a picture of herself ‘making a cure for cancer.’

While that is the dream for many doctors who get into oncology, it is becoming a reality for the New Yorker, who runs a lab at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. 

Dr Wu has pioneered the research behind a new frontier of ‘personalized cancer vaccines’ that are producing unprecedented results in clinical trials.

Everyone’s cancer is genetically unique to them, and Dr Wu and her team discovered how to identify these mutations and harness the body to fight them.

By taking this genetic data and programming it into vaccines, they found the body can be turned into a powerful cancer-killing machine. 

Early stage trial results show vaccines are becoming increasingly promising for difficult to treat cancers such as pancreatic cancer, and could be used for many of the 200 forms of the disease. 

Her work has already won the Sjöberg Prize 2024 for her ‘decisive contributions’ to the field.

Dr Catherine Wu, an oncologist at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, has paved the way for the development of cancer vaccines specific to individual’s tumors

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which chooses laureates in chemistry and physics, awarded Dr Wu its Sjöberg Prize last week for her work

Born in New York, Dr Wu’s obsession with the immune system began after she watched bone marrow transplants as a medical intern and saw firsthand how they regenerated the blood and immune system to tackle cancer.

‘I had had really formative academic experiences that made me quite interested in the power of immunology,’ she told CNN. 

‘There in front of my eyes were people who are being cured of their leukemia because of the mobilization of immune response.’

The notion of a cancer vaccine has been around for tens of years, but many have failed in the past because the right target has not been found.

Dr Wu was able to unearth the key to making cancer vaccines work. Along with her team, she discovered how to identify tumor’s unique neoantigens.

These are proteins that form on cancer cells when mutations occur. 

These tumor neoantigens can be identified by the immune system’s T cells as foreign, and then attacked.

Dr Wu identified patients’ neoantigens by sequencing DNA from healthy cells and cancer cells.

Copies of the neoantigens were then inserted into a customized vaccine to trigger the immune system to attack the cancer cells.

Dr Wu was determined to test the technology in advanced melanoma patients in a trial. 

But the suggestion that each patient in the trial would receive a personalized vaccine was tricky for the FDA to understand, as they would usually demand that the vaccine was tested in animals first.

Dr Wu said: ‘That room was packed. It was the first [trial] of its kind, and there were people from many different offices. Our argument was, “This is personalized, whatever we do in an animal doesn’t really match the human — so why even go that route?”‘

Once they had secured FDA approval, six advanced melanoma patients were vaccinated with a seven-shot course of individualized neoantigen vaccines.

The groundbreaking results, published in Nature in 2017, showed that some of the patients’ immune cells had been activated and their tumor cells targeted.

Four years later, a follow-up in 2021 demonstrated that the immune responses had worked to keep the cancer cells at bay.

Dr Wu said: ‘I’m grateful for all the patients that participated in our trial because they are… active partners.

‘It’s hard enough to go through treatment, but then to go through treatment that is of unknown benefit, and to be able to be willing to come in for all the extras that we need to do this type of research. There are more tests, there are more blood draws, there are more biopsies.’

Dr Wu and her team, as well as other big pharma companies like Merck and Moderna, have delved further into cancer vaccine research.

Trials are now in motion for pancreatic and lung cancer.

Dr Wu said: ‘My belief is that there are many roads to Rome. I think there’s many different delivery modalities, but each delivery approach can be optimized with different bells and whistles.

‘There has to be investment in and how to make that delivery approach work the best. And right now there’s a huge appetite for mRNA you know, fed by our pandemic.’

mRNA vaccines deliver instructions to cells to create the right proteins and contain a small piece of a protein from the cancer cell.

Meanwhile, a new therapy class has been hailed as a breakthrough in cancer treatment.

Similarly to cancer vaccines, tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TIL) uses immune cells from a patient’s tumors to kickstart a long-term defense.

Last week, the FDA approved a TIL for advanced melanoma called Amtagvi.

It is given as an infusion into a vein in the hospital. The medicine works by extracting and then replicating a type of white blood cell called T cells taken from a patient’s tumor.

Patrick Hwu, CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center, told Axios: ‘This is the tip of the iceberg of what TIL can bring to the future of medicine.’