Nine Innovators to Watch in 2018

Meet a group of trailblazers in medicine, education, art, transportation, artificial intelligence and more

(Dana Farber Cancer Institute; January Heuss; Suman Kanuganti; Cathy Carver)
smithsonian.com

A lot of people have good ideas. But only a few have the tenacity, discipline and single-mindedness to bring them to fruition. Here are nine groundbreakers to keep your eyes on in 2018.

Catherine Wu: Closer to a Cancer Vaccine

For a while now, researchers have struggled to develop a cancer vaccine, with little success. They’ve been unable to create a treatment that makes a person’s immune system aggressively zero in on tumor cells.

But a study published in Nature this past summer suggests that quest may have turned a corner. Catherine Wu, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Harvard Medical School, led a team that produced an effective vaccine personalized for individual patients.

It was a small study—only six melanoma patients. All had their tumors removed through surgery, but were considered high risk for recurrence. They were given a vaccine, and after two years, four of them showed no indication of cancer. The other two had some recurrence, but after treatment with a drug used in cancer immunotherapy, their tumors disappeared.

What made the difference is that the scientists were able to create a vaccine using neoantigens—molecules produced by DNA mutations in cancer cells—and that enabled the patients’ immune systems to recognize and destroy cancer cells displaying them.  

Wu says, in the study, the results provided “proof of principle” that a vaccine can be targeted to a person’s specific tumor. She and the other researchers plan to do more vaccine trials involving patients with advanced cancer with the goal of refining the tailor-made treatments.

“If successful in subsequent trials,” Wu adds, “a personal vaccine has the potential to be applied to any cancer that harbors a sufficient number of antigens for vaccination.”

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