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The immune system in action against cervical cancer

In the hunt for a vaccine against cervical cancer, fundamental knowledge about the immune system and organic chemistry have been brought together and have already resulted in a vaccine that is now being tested in clinical trials. Scientists are now working hard on an improved variant.

Protection from invaders

The human body possesses an immune system that protects us from hostile invaders, both from within and outside. Unfortunately, it does not always work as we would like it to. Sometimes it is too active and fights innocent invaders or the body’s own cells, whereas at other times it is not active enough. This is the case with a disease such as cancer.

Therapeutic vaccine

Researchers led by Professor Ferry Ossendorp (LUMC) have developed a vaccine that activates the immune system to make it fight the tumour cells. Their focus is cervical cancer, which is caused by the human papilloma virus. Unlike the vaccine that teenage girls are given nowadays to prevent the disease, this is not the preventative vaccine but a therapeutic vaccine. It is a form of treatment for women who already have cervical cancer, and its aim is to kill the cancer cells.


What is special about the vaccine is that it is a two-in-one system. It contains long proteins called peptides that are like virus peptides and evoke a specific response from the immune system.

Attached to these peptides are tiny molecules that activate the immune system in a controlled fashion and thus increase the effectiveness of the vaccine. The first version of this vaccine has already been successfully tested in clinical trials. ISA Pharmaceuticals, one of the companies on the Leiden Bio Science Park, will be developing it further.

Further improvement

In the meantime Professor Hermen Overkleeft from the Department of Bio-organic Chemistry and Ossendorp will continue to improve the vaccine by attaching multiple small molecules to the peptides. Immune cells are full of receptors that can recognise various small molecules. The question is whether you can activate these immune cells that bit extra if multiple small molecules (which are attached to the peptides) bind to the different receptors in the immune cells. Further research needs to be conducted to see if this works, but it is hoped that the new variant will deliver even better clinical results.

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