Liquor, tobacco and human papilloma virus (HPV) infection are major causes of head and neck cancer (HNC). Adult males often contract HPV infection via oral sex. People carrying HPV are at higher risk of developing HNC. Current HPV vaccines do not work in people already infected or in cancer patients. In the U.S., one in four persons are HPV positive. Thus, HNC will remain an important health problem for decades because of the high number of currently infected people. The major goal of our research is to design a cancer vaccine that works after disease onset.
Vaccination works by prodding the immune system to make protective antibodies. Our previous research suggests that antibodies against tumors are present for a short time as cancer grows. Now, we aim to learn how antibodies against tumors are made. We will use this knowledge to develop safe vaccine therapies to cure existing disease. Our approach is different because current immune therapies target cellular immunity, that is T cells, whereas we aim to exploit humoral immunity, that is B cells and antibodies.
This work will provide key data to push a patient’s immune system to make more anti-cancer antibodies and cure their disease. These new therapies will avoid marring head and neck surgeries and thus will improve how patients function. Importantly, our therapeutic approach can be extended to any type of cancer.