British scientists have come a step closer to developing a vaccine to treat cancers caused by the Epstein Barr virus.

Several malignancies, including some lymphomas and naso-pharyngeal carcinoma are linked to this common herpes-type virus and now researchers from the University of Birmingham and London's Royal Marsden Hospital hope their vaccine, which encourages the immune system to attack cancer cells infected with EBV, will lead to a breakthrough against these diseases.

Initial tests presented at the National Cancer Research Institute conference in Birmingham on patients with EBV-positive tumours suggest the vaccine does produce the required immune response. The new vaccine targets two proteins (EBNA1 and LMP2) that are expressed in cancer cells infected with the virus. If the body is able to produce an immune response to the proteins in the cancer cells it provides a natural mechanism of attacking the disease.

Neil Steven from the University of Birmingham's Institute for Cancer Studies said: "Scientists are increasingly looking at ways to use cancer vaccines to stimulate the body's immune system against tumours. He added that “EBV is an obvious target because it is present in a number of tumours. A successful vaccine could have world-wide application building on the benefits of chemotherapy and radiotherapy."

"The initial results of these vaccinations are promising,” Dr Steven went on. “It seems that the vaccine is able to encourage the body's immune response to the proteins present in the tumour. The next stage is to assess how effective this process can be in attacking tumours."

Patients receive the vaccination injected into the skin three times at three-week intervals. Recruitment is continuing for a trial of the vaccine for patients with EBV-positive tumours who have already received chemotherapy or where no alternative treatment exists.

Dr Steven added: "It is likely that in the future an EBV vaccination would be used in conjunction with chemotherapy for many of these tumours to possibly prevent the re-growth or spread of disease linked to the virus.

"Dr Kevin Harrington is treating patients on the trial at the Royal Marsden Hospital and I am doing so in University Hospital Birmingham. We are extremely keen to recruit more patients to the ongoing trial of the vaccine."