Lab Canada

Canadian researchers testing vaccines for prion diseases and common cancers

Vancouver, BC – Several Canadian researchers have come together to help control the relentless spread of a prion disease, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk, through vaccines. At the same time they aim to generate safe and effective therapies for common cancers. This simultaneous research is possible thanks to a unique connection they have discovered between the two unrelated diseases.

The project builds on links between prion proteins present in certain prion diseases like CWD in animals and common cancers in people like melanoma and lymphoma. The multi-provincial research is made possible by Vancouver-based PrioNet Canada’s Bootstrap program and involves three scientists along with two industry partners, Toronto-based Amorfix Life Sciences and Saskatoon-based PREVENT – the Pan Provincial Vaccine Initiative.

CWD impacts hundreds of thousands of deer and elk across North America, and is present in wild and farmed populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Common cancers affect more than one in three people during their lifetimes.

“This is the first time that the idea of treating cancer with antibodies against prion disease is being subjected to scientific testing,” said Dr Neil Cashman, scientific director of PrioNet Canada, a national Network of Centres of Excellence. The new therapies are currently being tested on mice, with clinical trials expected to begin within four to five years.

The project was sparked when a research team led by Dr Cashman, a neurologist at Vancouver Coastal Health and Canada Research Chair in Neurodegeneration and Protein Misfolding Diseases at the University of British Columbia, discovered that certain regions of the prion protein, which are usually buried in the protein’s interior, expose themselves when the protein becomes misfolded when prion disease develops. These regions, called epitopes, are then exposed for antibody binding which make them ideal targets for developing vaccines.

Later, Dr Cashman’s team discovered that prion proteins not only misfold in prion disease, but also on the surface of certain cancer cells, making the misfolded protein a promising focus for treating common types of cancer. This discovery is a significant move forward for the prion field, demonstrating that the prion protein plays a greater role in other diseases.

“If you can target a cancer cell with a specific antibody, then you have a chance of killing the cancer and sparing the normal cells,” said Dr Cashman, the project’s principal investigator who is collaborating with cancer experts Dr Dawn Waterhouse from the BC Cancer Agency and Dr Yuzhuo Wang of the BC Cancer Agency and Vancouver Prostate Centre at Vancouver Coastal Health.

Launched in partnership with Amorfix – a therapeutic products company of which Dr Cashman is the scientific founder, chief scientific officer and a board member – the project is funded under PrioNet Canada’s Bootstrap program, which brings together Canadian researchers with industry partners to apply prion research to some of the country’s greatest medical challenges.

“PrioNet’s Bootstrap is a value-added initiative that facilitates our collaboration with the university,” said Dr Robert Gundel, CEO of Amorfix. “Amorfix is very pleased to partner with PrioNet and PREVENT on this groundbreaking research that will enable the development of novel, safe and effective vaccines and immunotherapies for the treatment of CWD and cancer.”

Dr Andy Potter, PREVENT co-founder, agrees. “Any time one can potentially increase the efficacy of a vaccine or broaden the potential value of a vaccine is very clearly a huge advantage,” he said, adding that linking research and commercialization components between a Network of Centres of Excellence like PrioNet Canada and a Centre for Excellence in Commercialization and Research like PREVENT, is unique in Canada and that will translate into accelerated results.