A Birmingham based team, led by University of Birmingham Professor Alan Rickinson, have won a prestigious Cancer Research UK prize for developing a therapeutic vaccine for Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) associated cancers.

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The Epstein–Barr virus vaccine team, which consists of researchers from the University of Birmingham and the Cancer Research UK Centre for Drug Development, were awarded The Translational Cancer Research Prize as part of the annual National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference. This prize is awarded to a multidisciplinary team who have united in the quest to ensure scientific discoveries benefit patients and the public, and in doing so have made extraordinary breakthroughs.

EBV is a major global health burden, known to be associated with over 200,000 cases of cancer worldwide each year. EBV-associated cancers express viral proteins, making them a promising target for immunotherapies. The EBV vaccine team designed a candidate therapeutic cancer vaccine that has shown clinical activity in early phase trials.

The team’s achievements in navigating the difficult terrain from basic virology and immunology research to a currently active phase 2 trial span several decades. Alan has been a leader in the field since the 1970s, and foundations for the current vaccine’s development were laid when he and colleagues characterised the viral proteins present in cells transformed with EBV and the T-cell response to these proteins.

Building on this work, Dr Graham Taylor designed and produced a candidate therapeutic cancer vaccine and established laboratory tests that would subsequently prove essential for measuring its efficacy. Development of the vaccine was guided by the CRUK CDD and clinical trials were initiated by Dr Neil Steven at Birmingham’s CRUK Clinical Trials Unit (CRCTU). Alan, Graham and Neil have continued to work closely together on these trials and promising responses in phase 1A trials have led on to phase 1B and 2 trials with collaborators in the UK and Hong Kong.

In addition to the outstanding science underpinning the EBV vaccine, and the potential for substantial impact for patients, the Prizes Committee commended the team for their innovations in clinical trials management. The CRUK CDD and the CRCTU at Birmingham successfully steered the project through several difficulties and significantly reduced recruitment time, setting a new standard for future clinical trials.