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Liver cancer is the fourth deadliest cancer in Hawaiʻi, particularly affecting Native Hawaiian, Filipino and Japanese men. Currently, immunotherapy, a treatment that uses a person’s immune system to fight cancer, is the standard of care for liver cancer patients. However, it is not a cure, as many patients continue to relapse or have minimal improvements after receiving treatment.

Cancer vaccines are a promising treatment option that can stimulate the body’s natural anti-cancer immune system. However, previous clinical trials using vaccines to treat liver cancer have been unsuccessful. Benjamin Green, liver cancer research specialist at the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center, under the mentorship of Xin Chen, UH Cancer Center researcher and co-leader of the Cancer Biology Program, published a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, which found that the combination of a cancer vaccine and immunotherapy in mice with liver cancer caused the immune system to kill liver tumors. The results provided a solid base for initiating a clinical trial of this anti-cancer vaccine in human patients in the near future.

“This is an exciting discovery and one that will hopefully translate into a new immunotherapy treatment option for our patients,” said Jared Acoba, UH Cancer Center researcher and director of research at the Cancer Center at The Queen’s Medical Center.

Byron Rodrigues, a patient of Acoba, was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) in 2018. Upon diagnosis, Rodrigues immediately received surgery to remove the cancer, however the cancer returned the following year.

“These new findings will allow patients to be confident in living their lives without having to worry as much about relapsing. By having a better assurance of cancer treatment, patients, as well as family members, would have a better piece of mind and live life moving forward,” said Rodrigues.

Additionally, Green received funding from the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation to develop a new cancer vaccine concept for treating cholangiocarcinoma, a rare but highly aggressive type of liver cancer in which standard treatments are ineffective.

“I am very excited to apply lessons from our recent publication toward developing another cancer vaccine for this deadly type of liver cancer,” said Green.

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