Athena Prize awarded to cancer vaccine research

The Athena Prize, the health care system's largest prize for clinical research, is awarded this year to Alex Karlsson-Parra, senior physician and associate professor at Uppsala University Hospital and founder of the company Immunicum, which develops therapeutic cancer vaccines.

The prize, which consists of a research grant of SEK 150,000, will be awarded on Thursday, December 4, in connection with the Swedish Medical Society’s National Medical Meeting. The award winner is Daniel Forslund, newly elected as Sweden’s first innovation councillor.

About the laureate

Alex Karlsson-Parra and his colleagues have devoted 15 years of research to developing a therapeutic cancer vaccine that relies on foreign immune cells to activate the patient’s own tumor-specific immune system. Unlike other cancer vaccines, which use the patient’s own immune cells, this one uses white blood cells from healthy blood donors. The immune cells are grown into dendritic cells that are activated by an immunological shock treatment. After activation, the cells are frozen in batches of 10 million cells, a reasonable dose to inject into a tumor.

The advantage of Immunicum’s cancer vaccine is that it enables manufacturing on a larger scale and can thus give more patients access to treatment. In a pilot study, the cancer vaccine has been tested in patients with advanced kidney cancer. The results are promising with extended median survival, but the patient population is too small to draw firm scientific conclusions. Another study with patients with primary liver cancer is now underway, and a larger European study with around 100 patients will start shortly.

The Athena Prize jury’s reasons for choosing the winner

“A creative and innovative approach to the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines that activate the patient’s own immune system to attack the tumor cells. By using immune cells from healthy blood donors, rather than from the patient themselves, the method could give more seriously ill cancer patients access to effective treatment. A thorough, sustained and challenging research effort that is on the verge of a major breakthrough.”

About the Athena Prize

The Athena Prize is supported by VINNOVA, the Swedish Research Council, Forte, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, LIF, Sweden Bio, Swedish Medtech and the newspaper Dagens Medicin. The purpose of the prize is to recognize and reward significant achievements in clinical research in Sweden. The jury’s assessment criteria are medical benefit, level of innovation, urgency, scientific quality, societal benefit and collaboration between healthcare, academia and industry.

About the jury

The Athena winners have been selected by an expert jury with broad representation from healthcare, academia and industry. The jury includes: Johanna Adami (Chair), Director, Health Division, VINNOVA, Mats Ulfendahl, Principal Secretary for Medicine and Health, Swedish Research Council, Håkan Billig, Chair of the Medical Society’s Committee for Clinical Research, Bertil Guve, Director of the Center for Technology in Medicine and Health, Royal Institute of Technology, Karin Heeroma, Medical Director, Astra Zeneca, Christina Herder, CEO, Dilaforette, Jonas Rastad, Regional Director, Region Skåne, Nina Rehnqvist, Chair of the Swedish Agency for Health Technology Assessment, Göran Rydin, Research Director, Envirotainer, Ewa Ställdal, Director General, Forte, the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, and Mikael Nestius, CEO, Dagens Medicin.