Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who co-founded BioNTech, the German firm that partnered with Pfizer to manufacture a revolutionary mRNA Covid vaccine, predicted cancer vaccines based on mRNA might be ready to use in patients “before 2030”.
BioNTech was actually working on mRNA cancer vaccines before the pandemic struck but the firm pivoted to produce Covid vaccines in the face of the global emergency. mRNA-based cancer treatment vaccines have been tested in small trials for nearly a decade, with some promising early results.
In fact, it is because the groundwork for mRNA COVID-19 vaccines was established through decades of work on cancer vaccines that the scientists were able to design, manufacture and test it to be safe and effective in people in less than a year. Now, some investigators believe the success of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines could help accelerate clinical research on mRNA vaccines to treat cancer.
How does it happen?
The mRNA included in the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna coronavirus vaccines works by ferrying the genetic instructions for essentially harmless spike proteins on the Covid virus into the body. The instructions are taken up by cells which churn out the spike protein. These proteins, or antigens, are then used as “wanted posters” – telling the immune system’s antibodies and other defenses what to search for and attack.
The same approach can be taken to prime the immune system to seek out and destroy cancer cells, said Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer. But he remained cautious about the work.
The cancer cells that make up tumors can be studded with a wide variety of different proteins, making it extremely difficult to make a vaccine that targets all of the cancer cells and no healthy tissues. “We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them,” he said.