Alumni Spotlights

Sending Hope to Cancer Patients

  • on June 23, 2020
  • by Lisa McMahon, MA'09

What if there was a shot that cured cancer?

If the technology co-developed by Dr. Michael Ciesielski, ’93, proves as effective as current clinical trials suggest, a vaccine to treat one of the most common and aggressive forms of primary brain cancer might be available in just a few years.

Dr. Ciesielski, who grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., just miles from what would become his alma mater, first became interested in the “hard sciences” in the laboratories at Niagara University, where hands-on cancer research was being performed in collaboration with Roswell Park Cancer Institute. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, he enrolled in Roswell’s master’s degree program in physiology, where he began exploring ways to harness the immune system to attack cancer. It was a fairly new concept at the time, he noted.

 “It seemed like something that could really become another type of therapy for cancer,” he said, “and I’ve been moving forward with that almost at the same pace as the field itself has.”

In 1995, after earning his master’s degree, Dr. Ciesielski and Dr. Robert Fenstermaker, chair of the neurosurgery program at Roswell, established the institute’s neuro-oncology laboratory, where they focused their study on deadly brain tumors called gliomas. Over the next several years, during which Dr. Ciesielski earned a doctoral degree in immunology and joined Roswell’s faculty as assistant professor of neurosurgery, they developed technology that targets survivin, a protein found in cancer tumor cells, and stimulates immune responses to control tumor growth and recurrence. In 2012, they launched MimiVax to license this technology and take it from the lab into clinical trials.

“At some point, you realize curing cancer cells in the laboratory only takes you so far,” Dr. Ciesielski said. “You look at (the technology) and work to realize its potential to be an effective therapeutic for patients in the clinic.”

SurVaxM, the immunotherapeutic vaccine the two doctors developed, works like a flu shot, training the body’s own immune system to attack survivin on tumor cells. After the initial injection, patients get a booster shot every two weeks.

Initial trials have been successful, Dr. Ciesielski said.

“The median survival for a brain tumor patient is only about 15 months,” he said, “and in our Phase 1 study, we saw a couple of patients who lived six to seven years. In our Phase 2 study, that’s ongoing, we have patients who are already four or five years out, and the tumor hasn’t reccurred in that time.

“That is absolutely amazing for us, and that’s really what gives us the drive to go forward,” he said.

The technology is set to begin Phase 3 trials, the “last hurdle,” Dr. Ciesielski said. The studies will be open in 20 cancer centers across the country, as well as in China. If these trials prove as successful as the first two phases have been, he is hoping to receive FDA approval and make the vaccine available to treat brain tumor patients within the next several years. He notes that, because of the previous success, they have gotten notoriety for their work and are being approached by centers who want to be part of the studies.

Preparing for this final stage involves both the hands-on work of making the product for the trials, as well as the development aspects of finding funding and partners for the company. 

“It’s something we’ve taken right out of the backyard of Western New York,” Dr. Ciesielski said. “We’ve brought it through early clinical trials, and now represents one of the most advanced clinical studies for glioblastoma, and one of the farthest developed studies at Roswell Park, too. We’re looking to accelerate it and actively try to find ways to partner with (the pharmaceutical industry) to help propel it to the next level and increase availability of the drug.”

Focusing on the big picture, at this point, is crucial to move the technology into the marketplace, but acknowledging the little victories can be just as important.

“You meet some of the patients, and then you see them four, five, six years later on, and there’s this incredible feeling that you’ve really helped this person, you’ve done something that’s changed their life, their family’s life,” Dr. Ciesielski said. “To see that happening right in front of you is really exciting and sometimes overwhelming.”

Beyond his clinical and classroom work, Dr. Ciesielski has co-authored more than 50 journal articles and numerous abstracts. He is an active member of the Society for Neuro-Oncology, the American Association for Cancer Research, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. He was honored with a research scholar award from the American Cancer Society and holds 13 global patents, 12 of which are for the survivin technology.

He is also a husband, a father of three teenaged boys, and a football coach for Orchard Park Little Loop Football, which lets him “give back to the community a little bit and have some fun doing it at the same time,” he said. 

(Photo courtesy of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center)

Editor's note: Since this interview, MimiVax began a partnership with biomedical giant Merck on another clinical trial at the Cleveland Clinic to see if an existing Merck drug can enhance the effects of its vaccine for patients whose glioblastoma has recurred.