A virus in tumour's clothing

Cancer vaccine PeptiCRAd, developed by Assistant Professor Vincenzo Cerullo, will be the first ever customisable immunotherapy. A virus covered with peptides from cancer cells directs the body’s anti-viral immunity towards the tumour.

Tenure Track Assistant Professor Vincenzo Cerullo (@vincersurf) from the Faculty of Pharmacy has developed a new approach for treating cancer. The invention is based on the human body’s ability to recognise and destroy viruses.

“Years ago I started wondering whether we could take some peptides from the cancer cells, coat viruses with them and see whether the immune system would attack the cancer cells along with the viruses."

So Professor Cerullo covered the viruses with a specific signature from tumours and discovered that the immune system worked just as he had thought: it started attacking the tumours.

The new system has been shown to work in animal models and now, together with the University of Helsinki and the University of Helsinki Innovation Services (HIS), Professor Cerullo will take this technology to the clinic, ultimately to help patients.

Personalised cancer vaccine is possible

This virus vaccine system called PeptiCRAd has also been patented together with HIS. In the heart of the vaccine is an adenovirus which can be coated with almost any kind of peptide.

“We could take cancer cells from a patient and prepare a vaccine destined to kill just those cells,” Vincenzo Cerullo says.

Interest in bringing the invention from the laboratory to clinical testing has been so intense that companies have come to contact HIS before HIS had contacted them.

Development of the virus vaccine also moved forward when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first oncolytic virus therapy for the treatment of melanoma at the end of October 2015.

Significant international funding

The European Research Council ERC has awarded Professor Cerullo the ERC Consolidator grant worth €2 million. The highly esteemed, but in Finland very rare, ERC Consolidator Grants are designed to support researchers at a stage when they are consolidating their own independent research team or programme. Novo Nordisk has also supported the commercialisation of PeptiCrad with €0.5m initially, with smaller grants, such as €80 000 from the Cancer Society of Finland, coming.

Aim: to be the worst member of the research group

As a result, Cerullo’s research group IVTLab now has ample funding for six years. The aim, however, is to grow more in quality than in quantity. At the moment Cerullo is seeking two post-docs and two PhD students.

“In exchange, I want all of them to be excellent. You know, I have always wanted to direct a research group where I can honestly say I’m the worst member,” Vincenzo Cerullo laughs.