Success for mRNA cancer vaccine trial


While the Covid-19 pandemic has led to many innovations in terms of science and healthcare, arguably the most significant of all is the acceleration in the development and use of mRNA vaccines. mRNA (messenger RNA) is a ribonucleic acid molecule that functions as cellular instructions in protein synthesis, basically instructing which proteins should be made and when.

Principally, Covid-19 mRNA vaccines work by introducing a small piece of genetic material from Covid-19 into the body. This triggers cells to construct a harmless piece of the virus, called the spike protein. The immune system can then recognise this as foreign and induce a suitable immune response against it.

Due to the success of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, it may be a surprise to learn that mRNA vaccines were originally intended for a very different use – the treatment of cancer. For almost a decade, mRNA-based cancer treatments have been put through various trials.

In comparison to Covid-19, extensive obstacles lie in the way of an mRNA cancer vaccine due to the multifarious nature of cancer. Cancer can occur in many tissues, organs and physiological systems while varying in severity. This means that tumours can incorporate a vast array of different proteins, thus producing a vaccine that targets merely cancer cells without harming healthy tissue is a challenge.

The trial found a “44% relative reduction in the risk of dying of cancer or having your cancer progress

Despite this, one recent study has shown success. Moderna and MSD’s cancer vaccine has recently achieved lower mortality and cancer recurrence in skin cancer patients when combined with a commonly used prescription treatment. Despite more trials and greater regulation being needed to check the efficacy of the treatment, Paul Burton, the chief medical officer at Moderna has called it a “significant finding” as it’s “the first randomised-trial testing of an mRNA therapeutic in cancer patients.”

Specifically, the trial found a “44% relative reduction in the risk of dying of cancer or having your cancer progress” which Burton argues is an “important finding” and that shows this vaccine “has the potential to be a new paradigm in the treatment of cancer patients.”

However, Moderna and MSD are not the only pharmaceutical companies pursuing this potential ‘golden bullet’ in cancer treatment. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, husband and wife duo and founders of BioNTech, have also claimed breakthroughs in the field of mRNA cancer vaccines.

Speaking in a recent interview with the BBC, Şahin made claims that an effective cancer vaccine “will happen, definitely, before 2030.” Despite this being a somewhat bold statement, BioNTech cancer vaccine trials in the UK could start as early as this autumn due to the UK governments recently announced collaboration with the firm. This new partnership aims to provide 10,000 personalised therapies in the UK by 2030.

Despite these ambitious goals, Türeci advises that it is sensible to remain cautious about the prospect of a mRNA cancer vaccine. “As scientists we are always hesitant to say we will have a cure for cancer,” she said, regardless of having “a number of breakthroughs” so far. Therefore, while this new science has exciting potential, we shouldn’t yet jump to any conclusions that a miracle cure has been found.

Image: National Cancer Institute, Unsplash

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