Cancer Research UK launches trial to fight cancer caused by a common virus

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK’s Drug Development Office (DDO) has launched a trial of a vaccine to treat some forms of cancer caused by a common virus known as the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV).

"We have good reason to think that this vaccine will train the immune system to recognise that the cancer cells are different, and that it can arm immune cells to destroy tumours." - Dr Neil Steven, lead researcher.

The trial is being presented today (Tuesday) at a conference to mark 50 years since Cancer Research UK first discovered the link between the EBV virus and cancer*.

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infects most people in the UK, although it rarely causes medical problems. But it is also found in around 1200 people a year in the UK who have cancer, including Hodgkin’s lymphomas and nasopharyngeal carcinoma – located at the back of the nose.

Inside these cancers, EBV encourages cells to make molecules called EBNA1 and LMP2.  The vaccine** trains the immune system to recognise these molecules and kill the cancer cells.

The vaccine has been developed by Cancer Research UK, with technology developed by the University of Birmingham.  The trial will test the effect of the vaccine on the immune system in 18 patients with nasopharyngeal carcinoma recruited at hospitals across the UK, including a number of Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres, with additional patients taking part in a related trial in Hong Kong***.

Dr Neil Steven, Cancer Research UK’s lead clinician in Birmingham, said: “We’re delighted to open this important trial of a new cancer vaccine. The immune system struggles to distinguish between cancer cells and healthy cells.  We have good reason to think that this vaccine will train the immune system to recognise that the cancer cells are different, and that it can arm immune cells to destroy tumours. If trials are successful, this vaccine could one day provide an effective new way to treat cancer patients and save lives.”

Cancer Research UK funded the research at Birmingham University, which led to the discovery and development of the vaccine and is managing and funding the clinical trial.

The launch of today’s trial builds on the success of initial trials which also took place simultaneously in the UK and Hong Kong****. Cancer Research UK’s DDO owns and is supplying the vaccine for all trials. 

Dr Nigel Blackburn, director of drug development at Cancer Research UK’s DDO, said: “Our scientists played a key role in discovering and developing this promising new cancer vaccine and now we’re excited to take this drug into further clinical trials. 

“Our earlier study has already proved that this vaccine is safe to give to patients and this latest trial will tell us more about how the vaccine can fight cancer.”


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Notes to Editor

For more information about the trial, please visit or call the Cancer Research UK cancer information nurses on 0808 800 4040.

Watch an animation about EBV here:

* Dr Graham Taylor, a Cancer Research UK scientist based at the University of Birmingham, will be presenting the trial at the EBV 50th Anniversary Conference, 23rd - 25th March 2014, Keble College Oxford 

** Called MVA-EBNA/LMP2 vaccine.

***A Phase Ib trial of MVA-EBNA1/LMP2 vaccine in nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The trial is led from Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham and is also taking place at The Royal Marsden Hospital, London, The Christie, Manchester, the Velindre Cancer Centre, Cardiff, The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, Glasgow, the Aintree University Hospital and The Royal Liverpool Hospital, Liverpool and University College Hospital (UCH) London.


A Phase II trial is running simultaneously in Hong Kong. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma is more common in Chinese people. Patients being treated in this trial have cancers that cannot be treated by conventional means.

**** A paper detailing the results from the Hong Kong Phase Ia trial has been published in Cancer Research.

The initial Phase Ia trial in the UK was open to all patients with cancer caused by EBV infection including Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma as well as nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The Phase I trial in Hong Kong, that was run simultaneously, was only open to nasopharyngeal carcinoma patients.