Covid-19 vaccine technology could be used to stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack pancreatic cancer cells.
The German company BioNTech was founded in 2008 by professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci with the aim of researching novel cancer treatment methods using messenger RNA (mRNA).
More than a decade later, the company partnered with Pfizer to use the same technology to end a pandemic that was killing millions around the world.
Years of work on cancer vaccines laid the foundation for the rapid development, production and testing of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.
Now that they better understand the technology, doctors are again optimistic that it could lead to new treatments for tumors like melanoma, colon cancer and others.
Can mRNA cure cancer?
Messenger RNA (mRNA), the molecule that contains a cell’s instructions for making proteins, has come under the spotlight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have received mRNA vaccines, which provide strong defenses against severe Covid-19 caused by infection with SARS-CoV-2.
Although mRNA vaccines are incredibly effective, scientists have long wanted to use mRNA vaccines for an entirely different purpose – treating cancer.
For over a decade, mRNA-based cancer vaccines have been investigated in limited studies, with some showing positive results.
“Every step, every patient we treat in our cancer trials helps us find out more about what we are against and how to address it,” said Prof. Tureci, BioNTech’s Chief Medical Officer.
According to the BBC, BioNTech is currently conducting a study in which patients are given customized vaccines to boost their immune systems against their condition.
The mRNA technology used directs or provides cells with a blueprint to make an antigen or protein. This antigen is a component of the spike protein of the virus 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 eradicate damaged cells.
“mRNA acts as a blueprint and allows you to tell the body to produce the drug or vaccine… and when you use mRNA as a vaccine, the mRNA is a blueprint for the enemy’s ‘wanted poster’ – in this case, cancer antigens 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.
Numerous clinical trials are currently evaluating mRNA vaccines for cancer treatment in patients with pancreatic, colon and melanoma cancer. The combination of some vaccines with drugs that improve the body’s immune response to malignancies is also being studied.
However, neither a stand-alone mRNA cancer vaccine nor a combination with other cancer drugs has received US Food and Drug Administration approval.
“MRNA vaccine technology holds great promise for infectious diseases and could lead to new types of vaccines,” Elad Sharon, MD, MPH, of NCI’s Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, told the National Cancer Institute.
“Research on mRNA vaccines also seems promising for other applications, such as the treatment of cancer, but these approaches have not yet proven themselves.”