ImmunotherapyPublished on 26.09.2022

Tackling aggressive brain cancer

New NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials WINS Fellow Dr. Flavia Sousa is developing a novel approach to treat a form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma, with a biodegradable microneedle loaded with an RNA nanovaccine to reengineer the tumor environment.

Glioblastoma is a highly aggressive and deadly malignant primary brain tumor, with 50 per cent of patients surviving less than 15 months after being diagnosed. Sousa’s WINS (Women in Science) project aims to overcome current clinical limitations for the treatment of this form of cancer. This will involve the development of a biodegradable microneedle system to be implanted after tumor surgery loaded withan RNA nanovaccine to refashion immunologically the brain tumor microenvironment.

This type of vaccine relies on a molecule known as messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA instructs cells that take up the vaccine to produce proteins that may stimulate an immune response against these same proteins when they are present, in this case, in tumor cells. This strategy has increasingly become recognized as a potential path for cancer immunotherapy. According to the American National Cancer Institute, mRNA-based cancer treatment vaccines have been tested in small trials for nearly a decade, with some promising early results. mRNA vaccines have also been widely used to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposed nanovaccine would stimulate the in situ expression of cytokines, a type of protein, in the tumor microenvironment. Cytokines are used to stimulate anti-tumor immunity, leading to the potential elimination of cancerous cells. By implanting the vaccine in close proximity to the affected brain tissue, the WINS project seeks to overcome the biggest hurdle when using cytokines, namely their frequent toxicity when systemically administered to patients.

Sousa, who joined the Adolphe Merkle Institute’s BioNanomaterials group for her project, obtained her PhD in biomedical sciences at the University of Porto (Portugal) in 2019, followed by postdoctoral stays at Imperial College London (UK), and Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genoa (Italy).  The two-year postdoctoral Fellowship Program for Women in Science of the NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials seeks to support the professional development of outstanding female researchers who have already demonstrated excellence at an early stage of their careers and wish to pursue an academic career. The fellowships support the residency of researchers in the laboratory of one of the Center’s research groups.