As reported by the Boston Globe, July 26, 2004.

A Vaccine for Cancer?

By Raja Mishra

A company in Lexington, a suburb northwest of Boston, is testing a striking cancer vaccine that could bring about a new era in treating the disease. Although it is on the cutting edge, its origins actually lie in fossils.

In 1979, young Indian paleontology student Pramod K. Srivastava was studying fossils with the then-hot technology of the moment, electron microscopy, which allowed detailed analysis of plant fossil surfaces. The other guy using the only microscopy device at his small college was studying cancer cells.

"Looking over his shoulder," recalls Srivastava, "I noticed how different cancer cells looked from normal cells."

He grew interested and started looking at cancer cells through microscopy. At the same time, he came across a study showing that the tumors of cancer-stricken mice could be used to muster their immune systems to kill their own tumors.

It occurred to Srivastava that the surface of human cancer cells might also contain some telltale feature that the human immune system could learn. And so he began closely studying the cells, just as he did fossils.

"The fact that I wasn't trained in biology helped," he says. "I didn't know anything. I was playing around."

Before long, Srivastava was hooked on cancer biology, and, a decade later, through much trial and error, he isolated the protein on cancer cell surfaces that triggered an immune response in mice.

The scientist speaks with the accent of his native India, with floppy black hair that ends in a long tail down the back of his neck.

To search for a human cancer vaccine, Srivastava realized, would require significant cash. An investment banker acquaintance was interested, and Antigenics, the Lexington company, was born. Srivastava isn't actually on the payroll. He says his lack of business acumen would foul up the company's operations and, besides, he prefers his academic appointment at the University of Connecticut medical school.

But the company founded on his research now stands on the cusp of finding out whether its first generation of cancer vaccines works: Its massive 650-patient clinical trial for its kidney cancer vaccine should finish by year's end.

At the company's headquarters, employees gingerly take in samples from patients' tumors. Lab workers make vaccines engineered to cause immune reactions to those specific tumors. Then the vaccines are shipped back. Unlike normal vaccines, these vaccines would help the body fight back after someone developed cancer.

Other preliminary trials in breast and lung cancer patients recently commenced. And vaccine research has become a fixture of cancer medicine, with dozens of universities and companies involved.

Though Srivastava hopes thousands will benefit from his work, that is not what motivates him.

"What gets me up in the morning is not making money or even curing patients," he says, "but simply playing in my sandbox."