Vaccines typically are used to prevent infections, but researchers are studying vaccines as a type of immunotherapy to treat cancer.

One such vaccine was approved in 2010: Provenge, for advanced prostate cancer. With a cost of $93,000 and an average increased survival of four months, sales didn’t meet expectations. Dendreon, the manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy in 2014.

Madison Vaccines Inc., co-founded by Dr. Doug McNeel, of UW Carbone Cancer Center, is studying other kinds of prostate cancer vaccines.

One of McNeel’s experimental vaccines trains immune cells to attack prostate cancer cells expressing an antigen called prostatic acid phosphatase, or PAP. A study at UW Hospital combines the vaccine with pembrolizumab, or Keytruda, an immunotherapy drug approved for skin and lung cancers.

Provenge also targets PAP, but it is a custom-made vaccine, involving collection and lab manipulation of each patient’s cells. The Madison vaccine, called MVI-816, is ready-made in a vial.

Provenge “is a laborious and expensive process, whereas ours is off the shelf,” McNeel said.

Another experimental vaccine by Madison Vaccines targets a receptor for androgen, a hormone that drives prostate cancer progression.

In an effort to develop a vaccine for melanoma, or skin cancer, UW Health researchers are studying pet dogs.

Dogs can get melanoma, typically on the lips. An immunotherapy vaccine to prevent cancer from spreading in dogs was approved in 2010. It’s a shot into the muscle.

Dr. Mark Albertini, a UW Health skin cancer specialist, and Dr. David Vail, a UW-Madison veterinary science professor, are using a different kind of delivery device — a modified tattoo gun — to give the vaccine to dogs.

The tattoo gun’s multiple, tiny injections into the dogs’ skin could stir up more of an immune response against melanoma, Albertini said. If that turns out to be true, it might be the best approach in people.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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