Therapeutic anticancer vaccines operate by eliciting or enhancing an immune response that specifically targets tumor-associated antigens. Although intense efforts have been made for developing clinically useful anticancer vaccines, only a few Phase III clinical trials testing this immunotherapeutic strategy have achieved their primary endpoint. Here, we report the results of a retrospective research aimed at clarifying the design of previously completed Phase II/III clinical trials testing therapeutic anticancer vaccines and at assessing the value of immunological monitoring in this setting. We identified 17 anticancer vaccines that have been investigated in the context of a completed Phase II/III clinical trial. The immune response of patients receiving anticancer vaccination was assessed for only 8 of these products (in 15 distinct studies) in the attempt to identify a correlation with clinical outcome. Of these studies, 13 were supported by a statistical correlation study (Log-rank test), and no less than 12 identified a positive correlation between vaccine-elicited immune responses and disease outcome. Six trials also performed a Cox proportional hazards analysis, invariably demonstrating that vaccine-elicited immune responses have a positive prognostic value. However, despite these positive results in the course of early clinical development, most therapeutic vaccines tested so far failed to provide any clinical benefit to cancer patients in Phase II/III studies. Our research indicates that evaluating the immunological profile of patients at enrollment might constitute a key approach often neglected in these studies. Such an immunological monitoring should be based not only on peripheral blood samples but also on bioptic specimens, whenever possible. The evaluation of the immunological profile of cancer patients enrolled in early clinical trials will allow for the identification of individuals who have the highest chances to benefit from anticancer vaccination, thus favoring the rational design of Phase II and Phase III studies. This approach will undoubtedly accelerate the clinical development of therapeutic anticancer vaccines.
Keywords: cancer; clinical trial; immunological analysis; immunotherapy; regulatory science.