Scientists at Duke University say they have discovered why dendritic cell vaccines do not attack cancer as forcefully as expected and demonstrated how to overcome this constraint by improving the vaccines’ tumor-seeking ability.

The findings, published in the April 4 issue of Nature Immunology, present a new method of equipping dendritic cells so they can activate the immune system to fight against cancers, say the researchers from the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center and the departments of medicine and immunology.

Dendritic cells detect foreign proteins in the body and pass them along to T-cells for destruction. Scientists turn dendritic cells into cancer vaccines by mixing them with genetic material from the patient’s tumor and infusing the treated cells back into the patient.

“Dendritic cell vaccines have shown promise in battling cancers in laboratory studies, but they have not met with quite the success in the clinical trials that laboratory studies suggest they should,” said Yiping Yang, assistant professor of medicine and immunology at Duke and the lead author and principal investigator of the study. “Our study highlights what element is missing in dendritic cell vaccines that prevents them from activating the immune system, and we’ve shown how to insert that element.”

Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center: www.cancer.duke.edu