Tech Talk: Personalized cancer vaccines, virtual STEM, and biotech startups

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With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies spread throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

 Personalized Cancer Vaccines. After promising preliminary tests, a study led by University of Arizona researcher Dr. Julie Bauman will be expanded to further investigate the safety and effectiveness of a personalized cancer vaccine. Bauman’s study uses a patient’s own cancer cells to develop a vaccine intended to teach their immune system how to recognize and destroy cancer cells. This personalized vaccine was used in combination with the immunotherapy drug Pembrolizumab. The preliminary test used both of these treatments on 10 patients with head and neck cancer, seven of whom were treated at Banner – University Medicine. According to the study, half of the patients experienced a clinical response to the personalized cancer vaccine, and two patients had no detectable disease present after the treatment. This 50% clinical response is much higher than the approximately 15% response rate in patients who receive Pembrolizumab immunotherapy alone. Moving forward, the study will expand to 40 patients with head and neck cancer. According to UA, to identify the patient-specific mutations of the cancer, mutated DNA from the patient’s tumor is simultaneously sequenced with healthy DNA from the patient’s blood. Computers then compare the two DNA samples to identify the unique cancer mutations.

“The data are preliminary and the sample size is small, but it is promising,” Dr. Bauman said. “A phase I trial is about safety first and foremost, and we now know this treatment is safe and tolerable. But, we also have a strong signal to point us to further study this in head and neck cancer. That is why we are excited to expand this trial.”

 

Virtual STEM Adventure. Every November, hundreds of fourth- through eighth-grade students gather at Pima Community College to learn about a wide variety of sciences with hands-on activities. As with many other events, this year’s Arizona STEM Adventure went virtual. The Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation, which facilitates the STEM Adventure, estimates 1,800 local students attended virtually. In addition, 50 local science teachers attended professional development seminars and walked away with a bag of classroom supplies worth $200. 

“We want to ensure every STEM Adventure student has access to the materials and guidance they need to make science not only exciting, but hands-on,” said Liz Bowman, CEO of SARSEF. “This has taken tremendous volunteer efforts to prepare, but will be worth it when students can participate, no…



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