How cancer’s similarities to embryonic cell development could lead to a life-saving vaccine

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Dr Ankur Sharma, Laboratory Head at Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, 2024 CSL Centenary Fellow

Dr Ankur Sharma has discovered how liver cancer cells work together in a similar way to the rapidly dividing cells in a human embryo. He is now trialling ways to identify which liver cancers may respond to immunotherapy.

The 2024 $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship will support his next bold step at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth. His vision is for vaccines against cancer, which could one day allow us to manage it as a chronic disease.

While the similarities in how the cells behave were previously known, Dr Sharma’s research identified the role of the microenvironment in which they existed.

“We know that cancer cells are very plastic and some of the cancer cells could behave like embryonic cells. My research has shown that the tumour microenvironment mimics the features of embryonic development, a phenomenon I term as the ‘onco-fetal ecosystem’,” he says.

That research attracted global attention when it was published in the journal Cell in 2020 and led to clinical trials that sought to understand how the presence or absence of fetal-like cells in tumours could predict which patient would respond to therapy.

His research suggests that, as patients age, they tend to see more cell mutation. This is particularly marked in the case of liver cancer, given the organ’s prodigious ability to regenerate. Sure enough, Dr Sharma discovered the behaviour and growth of liver cancer cells was very similar to fetal cells.

“If we understand these phenomena, we will be able to target fetal-like reprogramming and may be able to prevent cancers. We want to make vaccines that deplete the very soil – the microenvironment – where cancer seeds are thriving.”

He hopes this could turn the patient’s immune system against the cancer cells, eventually killing them.

“Over the next five to 10 years, we aim to develop vaccines against fetal-like cells and show proof of principle in clinical trials that we could prevent cancer in very high-risk patients,” Dr Sharma says.

Dr Sharma, who along with his current role at the Harry Perkins Institute, is a women’s cancer senior fellow at Curtin University, obtained his PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. In 2015, he joined Genome Institute of Singapore, where in 2020 he was appointed as a Research Scientist at Spatial and Single Cell Systems Domain. He has won several awards including the 2019 NMRC Young Investigator fellowship.

“The past three years have been one of the most exciting times of my life,” he says. “Now, with the support of CSL Centenary Fellowship, I am thrilled to get to work on mRNA vaccines against fetal-like cancer cells.

“I think in the next 20 to 30 years, we might be managing cancer like a chronic disease, where instead of killing cancer cells, we might be trying to manage the cancer in its smallest form, so it does not evolve and become resistant to treatment.”

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