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Science behind Covid vaccines could fight cancer

Posted on the 1st March 2023

M RNA vaccines Cancer

Ground-breaking mRNA technology could play a vital role in cancer treatments.

Following the success of mRNA-based drugs against coronavirus, scientists now believe it can play a vital role in cancer treatments.

At the end of 2022, US biotech firm Moderna published results that caused a stir in the world of cancer research.

Conducted in partnership with the pharma company MSD, it demonstrated that a messenger RNA (mRNA) cancer vaccine, used in combination with immunotherapy, could offer significant benefits to patients with advanced melanoma who had received surgery to remove their tumours.

After a year’s worth of treatment, the phase IIb trial found that the combination reduced the risk of cancer recurrence or death by 44 per cent.

While mRNA has become synonymous with the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, cancer has been the ultimate goal of the technology.

Meanwhile, last month, the UK government announced a partnership with BioNTech that aims to fast track the development of mRNA cancer vaccines over the next seven years.

As part of the partnership, eligible cancer patients in the UK will get early access to clinical trials from autumn 2023 onwards. The hope is that, by 2030, these innovative new treatments can be made clinically available to around 10,000 cancer patients.

mRNA cancer vaccines are radically different from conventional vaccines, such as those for COVID-19 and the HPV vaccines that aim to protect against cervical cancer.

The focus is not prevention; instead, they are personalized medicines that train the patient’s immune system in how best to fight their own individual cancer.

As time is of the absolute essence, they are produced in a matter of weeks and they also have to be individually tailored to the unique set of DNA mutations that are driving that patient’s disease.

Moderna and MSD now plan to initiate a phase III trial for advanced melanoma, while BioNTech expects to release results from its own melanoma trial later this year.

Between them, Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac – the third main player in the field – are targeting cancers ranging from ovarian to head and neck, colorectal, lung and even pancreatic.

Optimism around mRNA vaccines is high.

However, scientists are still grappling with how best to optimize cancer vaccines against tumors and the vaccines are very expensive to produce.

The companies producing mRNA cancer vaccines say that there are several steps that are being taken to try to make the process of producing the individualized vaccines as cheap as possible.

These include a deal with Tesla that will see the electric car manufacturer develop small, portable mRNA bioprinters that could be used to automate the process of producing a patient’s mRNA for their vaccine.

The road to mRNA vaccines will undoubtedly take many twists and turns, but, for now, it does appear to be heading in a very positive direction.

Related: UK cancer cases to increase by a third by 2040

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