Covid-19 vaccine technology could be used to stimulate the immune system to recognise and attack pancreatic cancer cells.
In 2008, the German business BioNTech was established by professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci with the goal of researching novel cancer treatment methods utilising messenger RNA (mRNA).
Fast forward more than a decade later, the company teamed up with Pfizer to use the same technology to put an end to a pandemic that took the lives of millions around the world.
Years of work on cancer vaccines laid the foundation for the quick design, production, and testing of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.
Now, after understanding the technology more, doctors are yet again optimistic that it may result in new treatments for tumours like melanoma, bowel cancer, and others.
Can mRNA cure cancer?
Messenger RNA (mRNA), the molecule that carries a cell’s instructions for creating proteins, has come under the spotlight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Globally, hundreds of millions of people have received mRNA vaccinations that offer a strong defence against severe Covid-19 brought on by infection with SARS-CoV-2.
Although mRNA vaccinations have been incredibly effective, scientists have long intended to use mRNA vaccines for a totally different purpose—treating cancer.
For over a decade, mRNA-based cancer vaccines have been explored in limited studies, with some showing positive findings.
“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,” Prof Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said.
According to BBC, BioNTech is currently conducting a trial that involves giving patients a customised vaccines to activate their immune systems against their condition.
The mRNA technology in use instructs or provides a blueprint to cells so they can manufacture an antigen or protein. This antigen is a component of the virus’ spike protein in Covid. It would serve as a marker on the surface of tumor cells in cancer.
As a result, the immune system learns to identify and specifically target damaged cells for eradication.
“mRNA acts as a blueprint and allows you to tell the body to produce the drug or the vaccine… and when you use mRNA as a vaccine, the mRNA is a blueprint for the ‘wanted poster’ of the enemy – in this case cancer antigens which distinguish cancer cells from normal cells,” said Prof Tureci in an interview with the British broadcaster.
Covid was the first disease to demonstrate the viability of using mRNA to make vaccines. Such success against the pandemic has inspired researchers to use the technology against cancer.
Currently, numerous clinical trials are evaluating mRNA vaccines for cancer treatment in patients with pancreatic, colorectal, and melanoma cancers. Combining some vaccines with medications that improve the body’s immune response to malignancies is also being studied.
However, neither a standalone mRNA cancer vaccination nor a combination with other cancer medicines has received US Food and Drug Administration approval.
“mRNA vaccine technology is extremely promising for infectious diseases and may lead to new kinds of vaccines,” Elad Sharon, M.D., M.P.H., of NCI’s Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, told National Cancer Institute.
“For other applications, such as the treatment of cancer, research on mRNA vaccines also appears promising, but these approaches have not yet proven themselves.”