Newswise — Rhea Dodd is the first patient treated with an experimental cancer vaccine derived from a completely new cell engineering platform. 

The retired veterinarian, triathlete and climber traveled from her home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), where on Jan. 29 she received an infusion of her own immune cells reprogrammed with tumor antigens and designed to elicit an immune response to an HPV-related cancer. 

VICC is the first cancer center to enroll a patient in a clinical trial for this new technology developed by SQZ Biotechnologies of Watertown, Massachusetts. The investigational product is generated from the company’s technology that uses high-speed cell deformation to squeeze cells, creating a temporary disruption of their membranes and offering a window for the insertion of tumor antigens. 

The current Phase I trial is specifically for patients with recurrent, surgically unresectable or metastatic HPV16+ solid tumors (NCT04084951). 

“I trust my own immune system more than I trust chemotherapy,” said Dodd, who was diagnosed four years ago with anal cancer. “I’d rather have my body heal itself. I have a lot of confidence that will happen.” 

The cancer was initially discovered when she underwent a colonoscopy at age 55, five years after she had undergone a previous screening for colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, her doctor had neglected to perform a digital exam as part of her annual physicals, which may have detected the presence of a tumor. 

She underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but the tumor returned nine months later and metastasized to her liver and lymph nodes. Dodd didn’t settle for a poor prognosis. She began researching the clinical trials of cancer centers and the therapy pipelines of pharmaceutical companies, which led her to Cathy Eng, MD, the David H. Johnson Professor of Surgical and Medical Oncology at Vanderbilt, who was at that time a physician at MD Anderson Cancer Center. She enrolled in an immunotherapy trial there, led by Eng. 

“There was an incredible response,” Dodd said. “I was the No. 1 responder in the study, and the sampled tumors shrank by 77%. I was pretty excited about that. Then, a year and a half later, the immunotherapy quit working.”

She had no other option but to undergo chemotherapy and await another clinical trial, while staying in touch with Eng. 

“I am very privileged to be working with Dr. Eng,” Dodd said. “She is amazing. She is energetic, intelligent, compassionate and a leader in her field. And I feel she cares about me as a person.” 

Eng was recruited to VICC in 2019. 

“I am honored to be able to assist in the care of Dr. Dodd; she is absolutely delightful and highly motivated,” said Eng, co-director of Gastrointestinal Oncology and co-leader of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Research Program at VICC. “Treatment advances in cancer care are critical for our patients. But in the United States, less than 5% of all cancer patients participate in clinical trials; without patient participation, we cannot move forward. 

“Dr. Dodd understands the importance of clinical trial participation and the potential promise of new approaches and agents. Her willingness to travel and participate in a clinical trial may not only benefit her but potentially help other patients,” Eng said 

Dodd will receive two more booster doses of the cellular therapy vaccine at three-week intervals. The regimen, unlike other cellular therapies, does not require conditioning, a process where a patient receives chemotherapy to suppress the immune system to create space for the infused cells. SQZ leverages the immune system’s existing capability, eliminating the need for pre-conditioning.

The novel cell therapy candidate is precisely engineered via SQZ’s CellSqueeze technology to target HPV+ cancers. It is the first product candidate stemming from a 2018 collaboration expansion between Roche and SQZ to develop SQZ-APCs for oncology indications. The platform is designed to present tumor antigens to a patient’s CD8 T cells, an approach that can potentially induce immune responses in patients to attack their tumors. 

Dodd had this advice for anyone diagnosed with cancer. 

“I have outlived my prognosis,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I got good care or maybe I got good care because I just kept looking and looking. Maybe it’s because I don’t accept this illness is going to kill me. Cancer patients should not be afraid to search for treatment options. You have to be your own advocate because it’s your life that is on the line. I don’t take no for an answer. I’ve relied on persistence and turning over every stone.

“Also, if you have cancer, utilize your support group and your friends. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned. At this point in my life, I feel more loved than ever before,” Dodd said.