A lifelong dedication
to cancer vaccines

Cornelis Melief was recognised with the 2018 ESMO
Immuno-Oncology Award

Cornelis Melief

Professor Emeritus in tumour immunology at the Leiden University Medical Center, The Netherlands

Presented as 'a true pioneer in the field of cancer immunology' at the ESMO Immuno-Oncology Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, last December, Cornelis Melief has made it his life’s work to understand how the immune system can be harnessed to develop new cancer vaccines. Most recently, his team’s work has introduced the world to the synthetic long peptide (SLP) vaccines, which have shown promising efficacy in combination with chemotherapy or immunotherapy for cervical and head and neck cancers associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV). For these outstanding achievements he was awarded the ESMO Immuno-Oncology Award, which was established in 2017 in memory of the ESMO founding member and first President, Georges Mathé.

How do you feel about receiving the 2018 ESMO Immuno-Oncology Award?

Receiving this award is a great honour for me, both personally and professionally. Although I graduated as an MD nearly fifty years ago, in 1970, it took decades for my research in animal models of cancer to be translated into immunotherapy for patients. Indeed, the clinical application of my work really only became a reality about 10 years ago. You can understand then that it gives me enormous satisfaction to see that my efforts in this field have now been acknowledged with this award by ESMO. To me, this recognition by the very specialists who diagnose and treat patients with cancer is incredibly gratifying.

What sparked your interest in the role of the immune system in human cancers?

Even in my earliest days of practising medicine, and throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, I had become increasingly convinced that the immune system had the capability to eradicate immunogenic tumours. The evidence suggested that both viral antigens, as well as non-viral antigens, could be targeted by T cells and that established tumours could be eradicated by either monoclonal antibodies or T cells. For the future, in terms of research, I would like to continue my longstanding interest in adoptive cell therapies.

What was your first breakthrough moment?

It came in 1989, with the publication of a study demonstrating that large virus-induced tumours in mice could be eradicated by cloned CD8+ T cells in combination with interleukin-2. Importantly, there were no adverse side-effects of this treatment. Twenty years later, in 2009, we published the first positive results of cancer vaccine-based T cell therapy in patients with pre-malignant disease. This research demonstrated that vaccination with an SLP vaccine against HPV-16 oncoproteins E6 and E7 led to clinical responses in women with HPV-16-positive vulvar intraepithelial neoplasia, which correlated with the strength and breadth of the vaccine-induced HPV-16-specific T cell response.

What do you think will be the next big thing in immuno-oncology?

In my opinion, the next big step forward in immuno-oncology is likely to be combination treatment, bringing together vaccination against viral or mutation-derived antigens with T cell checkpoint blocker therapy and depletion of associated suppressive myeloid and suppressive T cells.

Looking ahead, what are the greatest challenges facing immune-oncology progress?

The biggest hurdle in immuno-oncology progress is presented by the specificity of the immune system to individual patients. The challenge is to achieve a high-resolution blueprint of both the cancer and the cancer microenvironment for each patient at diagnosis. This will allow the development of a highly personalised treatment plan addressing the specific needs of that particular patient by a rational combination therapy approach.