mRNA technology and a vaccine for cancer

Cure is ‘in our grasp’ say the scientists behind the BioNTech Covid-19 jab

Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci
The BioNTech founders say some cancer treatments will be available by 2030
(Image credit: Bernd von Jutrczenka/Pool/Getty Images)

Technology honed in the battle against Covid-19 could see vaccines that target cancer readily available by 2030.

Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci co-founded BioNTech, the German company that partnered with Pfizer to manufacture an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine that would prove to be vital in the global fight to stem the pandemic. Now they say they have made further breakthroughs that could “lead to new treatments for melanoma, bowel cancer and other tumour types”, according to the BBC.

Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Şahin said that cancer vaccines based on mRNA might be ready to use in patients “before 2030”, The Guardian reported.

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BioNTech has “several trials in progress”, according to the broadcaster, “including one where patients are given a personalised vaccine, to prompt their immune system to attack their disease”.

How could a cancer vaccine work?

As The Guardian explained, an mRNA Covid vaccine works “by ferrying the genetic instructions for essentially harmless spike proteins on the Covid virus into the body”.

These instructions are then “taken up by cells which churn out the spike protein”. The proteins, known as antigens, “are then used as ‘wanted posters’ – telling the immune system’s antibodies and other defences what to search for and attack”.

Şahin and Türeci hope that a vaccine targeting cancer will work through a similar process, although in this case, the vaccine would contribute to the creation of “cancer antigens which distinguish cancer cells from normal cells”, explained Türeci.

mNRA vaccines in the pandemic

BioNTech had originally been working on cancer vaccines before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe, but the company “pivoted to produce Covid vaccines in the face of the global emergency”, said The Guardian.

It hopes to develop treatments for bowel cancer, melanoma and other cancers, but there are “substantial hurdles” to overcome. Tumour cells are “studded with a wide variety of different proteins” that can make it “extremely difficult to make a vaccine that targets all of the cancer cells and no healthy tissues”, explained the paper.

Speaking to Kuenssberg, Türeci said that the pandemic had given the company an opportunity to learn how to manufacture mRNA vaccines faster, as well as providing a better understanding of how patients’ immune systems responded to mRNA.

The speed at which Covid vaccines were developed and rolled out during the pandemic has also streamlined the process by which medical regulators approve vaccines – all of which “will definitely accelerate also our cancer vaccine”, said Türeci.

Is a cure for cancer in reach?

While Şahin and Türeci have claimed that a cure for cancer is “in our grasp”, other experts are more sceptical.

Dr Otis Brawley, the former chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, told Canadian radio show The Current that he was “very hesitant to give a promissory note” that the new research could lead to a significant breakthrough in cancer treatment.

“Our history in oncology over the last 70 years is we’ve literally had leaders in the profession saying there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

But some remain hopeful. Kelly McNagny, medical genetics and biomedical engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, told the programme that BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine is “actually really promising” but warned it was not a panacea for curing cancer.

“This is a treatment for patients with cancer,” he told the radio show. “So it’s not that vaccine that you would think of getting a shot in your arm and you’re never going to see cancer.”

But McNagny said the technology will be “used to treat specific cancers, and that’s going to start the wave. So that’s what I would say is a realistic expectation.”

BioNTech’s mRNA cancer trials have shown “early encouraging signals” but it could be “several years” before we know whether the promised mRNA vaccine treatments “live up to the hype”, said the BBC.

“Every step, every patient we treat in our cancer trials helps us to find out more about what we are against and how to address that,” Türeci told Kuenssberg.

“As scientists, we are always hesitant to say we will have a cure for cancer. We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them.”

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