SYDNEY - Researchers at the Brisbane-based Cooperative Research Centre for Vaccine Technology and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research are testing a system for producing personalized vaccines against skin cancer in a Phase I/II clinical trial at the Mater Hospital.

The trial is expected to involve 10 patients with Phase III skin cancer - that is, cancer that has not spread beyond the regional lymph nodes. Patients will be treated over several months. A successful treatment for skin cancer will be of considerable significance in Australia, which has the world's highest rate of melanomas.

Scientists make the vaccine by taking tumor cells from the patient, as well as dendritic cells (specialized human immune cells) from a sample of the patient's blood. The immune cells are grown in the laboratory and exposed to the tumor cells. In effect, the immune cells are specially trained to react to the tumor cells. Then, they are injected back into the body.

Successful trials have been conducted in mice. Earlier trials in humans showed promise when the immune cells were stimulated through the use of gene therapy, but the expense and production time were prohibitive since each vaccine had to be prepared overseas. Because the new trials do not rely on processing overseas, the results could occur in as little as six months. - Mark Lawson