The Spanish researcher who develops a vaccine against cancer

Iris Alicia Bermejo works at the University of Vienna developing what could be a therapeutic vaccine against many types of cancer.

Spanish, he began his research at the University of La Rioja, where he graduated in Chemistry and then took a master’s degree.

“A few months after finishing it, I joined the Biological Chemistry group to carry out my doctoral thesis, thanks to a grant from the Spanish Association against cancer in La Rioja”, explains Bermejo in an interview with Business Insider España.

After the thesis, he worked for a private company for a few months, but was able to do research again at the University of La Rioja until, in 2020, the opportunity to go to the University of Vienna came out thanks to one of the prestigious Marie Curie scholarships.

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“I am working on a project for the targeted administration of drugs to a type of receptor proteins in the immune system called lectins,” explains Bermejo.

Basically, the researcher is in charge of the initial drug design research processes And right now you could have a revolution in cancer therapies on your hands.

Bermejo’s therapeutic vaccine that would avoid aggressive side effects

The vaccine does not prevent cancer disease, warns the researcher. “This is a therapeutic vaccine,” he explains. “In other words, it acts as a drug that stimulates the immune system, hence the name of vaccine. “

“Specifically, our drug consists of a small glycoprotein, called MUC1, which has been shown to have a different structure in healthy and cancer cells, that is, it exists in the human body, but the immune system is not able to recognize it when it occurs in tumors, “he explains.

Bermejo’s team modifies this protein chemically so that the immune system recognizes it as a foreign agent and activates it.

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The vaccine has passed the first tests in animals and the results are very encouraging. “So far we have tested it in mice and We have seen that more antibodies are produced with the modified drug than with the one present in the body, in addition, the antibodies produced by our vaccine are capable of recognizing human cancer cells, “he points out.

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The next step would be to carry out pharmacological studies and verify their economic viability, explains the researcher.

If it works, the vaccine would be one of the immunotherapies that are gaining strength in the fight against cancer. One of the main advantages of this strategy is that it minimizes the aggressive side effects caused by other alternatives such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

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“Our vaccine is included within the treatment called immunotherapy, that is, it consists of stimulating the immune system to fight cancer. This type of treatment was created to avoid the known side effects of the therapies that are currently used, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, since immunotherapy focuses its action only on cancer cells “, summarizes Bermejo.

The researcher’s vaccine swims against the trend of betting on personalized medicine

The heterogeneity of cancer disease has pushed many startups and research companies to bet on personalized medicine.

“Within the word cancer, which refers to uncontrolled cell division, various pathologies are encompassed with different treatments and symptoms.” That is “different types of cancer do not behave the same, nor does the same type of cancer behave the same in different patientsl “, admits Bermejo.

“For this reason, personalized therapy is being studied in the case of this disease and others,” he explains.

However, the researcher points out that It is a “very expensive” treatment and highlights the benefits and potential of his strategy.

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“The type of proteins that we study in our research group are present in 90% of cancers and are related to some types such as, for example, breast, ovarian, colon, pancreas and lung cancer, which are one of the most common types. common, which makes our vaccine not a general treatment, but it would cover a large part, “he concludes.

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The idea is for another working group to collect the research and move on with it

Bermejo’s team works on the basic science of drug design and recalls that they are not doctors, but chemists.

“We work in search of a common good together with other groups, we have already proposed an idea, that chemically modified glycoproteins work better than those that exist in the body when provoking an immune response, We have tested it and shown that it works. ”

For the researcher, her work ends there, she points out, shedding light on the teamwork dynamics on which scientific research always relies.

“The next step would be for another group more experienced in clinical trials to continue with this project in the future,” he explains.

“We cannot continue with this investigation since it is not our field and we do not have the means, in addition to the investment that would be needed to resume the project,” he concludes.

Until now, the researcher had received funding from the Spanish Association against Cancer in La Rioja, “in addition to the projects that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation (Mineco) has granted to my research group,” she says.

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Bermejo does not plan to continue with the project from a spin-off and prefers to leave it in the hands of others to move forward.

“For now, I do not consider the creation of a spin-off, since I consider that I do not have sufficient knowledge and experience, it would also need to find investors to finance the project and professionals capable of carrying out clinical trials “, he reflects.

Bermejo points out that the rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19 should make us reflect on the resources we allocate to other diseases

The coronavirus pandemic has forced scientific attention and resources to be directed to the production of coronavirus vaccines.

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“The fact that not just one, but several vaccines against this disease have been developed in record time, which in itself represents a historic event, should make us reflect on how joining efforts you can move much faster in the search for treatments for other diseases “, says the researcher.

Bermejo reflects on the research situation in Spain and points out that, if when he decides to return he cannot continue working in public research, “I will dedicate myself to science in private companies, since I would like to continue working in R&D”.

“Public research in Spain has several problems: the first, well known to all, is the scarce funding, and the second is the terrible job insecurity, that is to say, that researchers chain temporary contracts for years, the age at which a Researcher gets a fixed position is around 45 years old, “he laments.

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“The consequence of both is that researchers invest part of their time in obtaining external projects to be self-employed, since many times the research group cannot guarantee to hire you again, leading to lower productivity,” he points out.

To try to retain scientific talent, Bermejo assures that “the system would have to be rethought from the ground up.”

More resources directed to science will imply more possibilities of discovering therapeutic alternatives to a disease what is expected what the number of new cases increases in the next two decades, to 29.5 million a year in 2040.

Although Bermejo does not believe that cancer can be eradicated, he assures that the work consists in making it “just another chronic disease”.

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