The same technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines is being tested to prevent cancer recurrence in patients. Scientists say that specially targeted mRNA is being formulated into vaccines that could boost the immune system to search out and destroy lingering cancer cells.
According to USA Today, scientists who are currently studying the potential of mRNA to treat cancer should have the results of clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of these drugs within a year or so. While finding COVID-19 patients to test vaccines was easy during the pandemic, it is more difficult to find enough advanced cancer patients for clinical trials, say researchers.
“We feel pretty good about enrolling patients on these trials and are hopeful that ultimately they can demonstrate improved outcomes,” said Dr. Ryan Sullivan, a medical oncologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who specializes in the care of patients with advanced melanoma. The expert told USA Today that he does not expect mRNA to be a miracle cure but rather “part of the answer.”
Currently most of the mRNA vaccines are being tested on melanoma and kidney cancer because these cancers have already been successfully treated with drugs called checkpoint inhibitors. Scientists hope mRNA vaccines will prove to be equally successful, if not more so, than these inhibitors and could be applied to other forms of cancerous tumors in the future.
Interestingly, the scientist who developed the first widely used coronavirus vaccine once said that the technology behind it will soon be used to fight another global scourge — cancer.
Ozlem Tureci, who founded the German company BioNTech with her husband Ugur Sahin, was working on a way to harness the body's immune system to tackle tumors when they learned last year of an unknown virus infecting people in China. That is when they decided, over breakfast, to use their two decades of knowledge with mRNA technology to block the virus and put their work on cancer tumors on hold.
According to USA Today, current trials are being conducted on people who have had cancer tumors largely removed by surgery. The mRNA vaccine is then specifically formulated to send T cells, a type of white blood cell, to overwhelm and kill any remaining cancer cells in the patient’s body.
Scientists at Moderna and its partner pharmaceutical company, Merck, hope that patients could have a personalized vaccine about 45 days after surgery. They added that they will also develop ready-made vaccines for people with advanced cancer who cannot wait for traditional therapy. These vaccines will attack the proteins on the surface of mutated cancer cells.
BioNTech has announced it is launching a new clinical trial to see how well these “off the shelf” treatments work in 120 melanoma patients in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the U.S., says USA Today. The U.S. federal government lists 29 current studies that are testing the efficacy of cancer vaccines using mRNA technology.
According to the MD Anderson Center at the University of Texas, researchers began exploring how to use mRNA vaccines to treat cancer long before this technology was used for COVID-19.
“We’ve known about this technology for a long time, well before COVID-19,” said oncologist Dr. Van Morris, adding that a team of colorectal experts at M.D. Anderson are testing the technology in a Phase II clinical trial using personalized cancer vaccines.
“We’re hopeful that with the personalized vaccine, we’re priming the immune system to go after the residual tumors, clear them out and cure the patient,” said Morris.
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