Researchers at the University of Oxford, the Francis Crick Institute and University College London have been granted £1.7 million of funding from Cancer Research UK and the CRIS Cancer Foundation to develop a lung cancer vaccine.

The team are seeking to create ‘LungVax’, the world’s first vaccine to prevent lung cancer in people with a high risk of the disease.

The LungVax vaccine will use technology similar to the highly successful Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

In the same way traditional vaccines use part of a virus to train our bodies to fight disease, cancer vaccines use harmless proteins from the surface of cancer cells known as neoantigens

Neoantigens appear on the surface of the cell because of cancer-causing mutations within the cell’s DNA. When they are introduced into the body they act as a ‘red flag’, which trains the immune system to recognise them on abnormal lung cells.

This lung cancer vaccine will help activate the immune system to kill these cells and stop lung cancer.

“Cancer is a disease of our own bodies and it’s hard for the immune system to distinguish between what’s normal and what’s cancer,” said Professor Tim Elliott, research lead for the LungVax project.

“Getting the immune system to recognise and attack cancer is one of the biggest challenges in cancer research today. If we can replicate the kind of success seen in trials during the pandemic, we could save the lives of tens of thousands of people every year in the UK alone.”

The scientists developing this lung cancer vaccine will first use lab tests to see if it successfully triggers an immune response. And if the results are positive, the vaccine will move straight into a clinical trial.

Over the next 2 years the team will receive funding to support lab research and initial manufacturing of 3,000 doses of the vaccine at the Oxford Clinical BioManufacturing Facility.

The vaccine could then be scaled up to bigger trials for people at high risk of lung cancer, which could include people aged 55-74 who are current smokers, or have previously smoked. This is the same group that currently qualifies for targeted lung health checks in some parts of the UK.

“Fewer than 10% of people with lung cancer survive their disease for 10 years or more. That must change,” said Professor Mariam Jamal-Hanjani of University College London and the Francis Crick Institute, who will be leading the LungVax clinical trial.

“LungVax will not replace stopping smoking as the best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer. But it could offer a viable route to preventing some of the earliest stage cancers from emerging in the first place.”

Researchers think the vaccine could cover around 90% of all lung cancers, and this funding will be the first step towards getting it to patients.