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Using super-antigens to boost immune response to cancer

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Howard Johnson

Graduate Research Professor of Immunology
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

An internationally recognized immunologist, Howard Johnson was the first to show that molecules called interferons are important regulators of the immune system. His research provided the basis for the use of interferons in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. More recently, he has developed a vaccine against melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – that provides almost complete protection in mice and could lead to a similar treatment for people.

Johnson’s vaccine uses inactivated or dead melanoma cells in combination with a super-antigen to boost the immune response in mice against malignant melanoma cells. Super-antigens are proteins that are potent stimulators of the immune system.

He said UF is in the process of obtaining patent protection for the vaccine and licensing the technology to a pharmaceutical company. Once the vaccine is licensed, human clinical trials can begin, a process that could take three or four years.

“Until now, super-antigens have never been used in a cancer vaccine, and our research shows that these proteins help provide a strong immune response against malignant melanoma,” Johnson said. “We have found that combinational therapy of super-antigens and inactivated melanoma cells can protect 60 to 100 percent of the mice against a 25-fold lethal dose of melanoma. When vaccinated mice were challenged a half-year later with a lethal melanoma dose, 80 to 100 percent survived the second challenge, which is essentially complete protection.”

He said the preclinical studies demonstrate that weak immune responses against cancers such as melanoma can be converted to strong responses by using super-antigens in the vaccine. Moreover, preventive or prophylactic vaccination against cancer would be more effective than attempting to develop a vaccine against existing cancer.

Johnson, who joined the faculty in UF’s department of microbiology and cell science in 1984, has authored more than 260 scientific journal articles and other publications. He is a member of many scientific societies, review groups and specialty boards, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the New York Academy of Sciences.

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