The mRNA technology that is successfully used for the development of two Covid-19 vaccines is gaining increased attention lately because the same technology will be applied to the development of novel cancer therapies, which, as anticipated by the founders of a German company BioNTech, may be available in as soon as two years.
Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine was developed through a partnership with BioNTech on its mRNA technology platform. The vaccine was authorized for emergency use in the United States and Europe and tens of millions of doses have been administered to people in the US, Europe and many other countries worldwide to control the pandemic. Another mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccine developed Moderna has also obtained the emergency use approval and is being distributed for vaccination in the US and Europe.
The success of the mRNA-based vaccines is encouraging researchers and biotech companies to expand its use into the development of novel cancer therapies, including cancer vaccines, which is good news for cancer patients as strengthened research and increased investment in the field will bring new treatment options to cancer patients faster.
mRNAs or messenger RNAs are molecules used by cells to translate and deliver the genetic orders from the DNAs to the protein-making machines in the cells and let them produce the corresponding proteins when and where they are needed. With this technology, small pieces of mRNAs that carry the information of unique Covid-19 spike proteins are synthesized and inserted into the vaccines that drive the production of viral-like spike proteins by the cells, which will then trigger the responses of the immune system to generate neutralizing antibodies that are the major force to control the viral infection. Similarly, mRNAs that carry the information of cancer specific proteins/antigens could be put into the cancer vaccines with the same technology for stimulating patients’ immune systems to gain the immunity against their cancers.
Cancer vaccines are novel cancer therapies that can not only prevent cancers but also treat them. Just like the viral vaccines, mRNA-based cancer vaccines have multiple advantages over the conventional cancer vaccines, such as the higher potency, better safety profile and shorter development time. Immune cells stimulated by the cancer vaccines can specifically attack and destroy those cancer cells that are producing specific antigens coded by the same pieces of mRNA inserted into the vaccines.
To make the mRNA-based cancer vaccines work effectively on human bodies, tremendous research and large clinical trials are required. Several promising clinical results of treating cancers with the combination of vaccines and immunotherapy drugs, such as the checkpoint inhibitors, are very inspiring, and the researchers in both academic institutions and biotech companies are working around the clocks to make scientific progress in the field. We hope these focused efforts will accelerate the development of mRNA-based cancer vaccines and bring the new therapies to benefit cancer patients around the world soon.
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- Scientist behind BioNTech’s COVID jab working on cancer vaccine. New York Post, March 19, 2021.
- Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines. TheCentersfor Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), March 18, 2021.
- mRNA vaccine for cancer immunotherapy. Molecular Cancer, Feb. 25, 2021volume 20.