BioNTech, but also Merck and Moderna announced this month that they were studying how the technology involving messenger RNA (mRNA) used in their anti-Covid vaccine could treat cancer. An anti-cancer vaccine is thus foreseen in 2030. Several teams of researchers are working on the subject, especially in Toulouse.
In the middle of Pink October, the annual communication campaign aimed to raise women’s awareness of the importance of breast cancer screening (and raise funds for research), and while a recent study showed a significant global increase in fourteen types of cancer in people under the age of 50 . , this is positive information that gives hope: a vaccine against cancer by 2030.
This perspective was traced by professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, who gave an interview to the BBC, the British television channel, on October 5. This pair of German scientists became famous during the Covid-19 pandemic because they co-founded the biotechnology company BioNTech, which together with the Pfizer laboratory made it possible to bring the vaccine against the Covid Cominarty. The messenger RNA technology used by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be used in a cancer vaccine, the two researchers explained.
“A Series of Breakthroughs”
“As scientists, we are always hesitant to say we will have a cure for cancer. We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them,” they say.
“What we have developed for decades in the development of cancer vaccines has been the driving force behind the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, and now the Covid-19 vaccine and the experience we have gained during its development, a service to Our cancer work. Every step, every patient we treat in our cancer trials, helps us learn more about what we are fighting against and how to solve it,” says Ozlem Türeci.
BioNTech launched a phase II clinical trial in 2021 to assess the interest of the BNT111 vaccine in the treatment of advanced melanoma. This vaccine, based on mRNA technology, allows cells to produce a combination of four antigens (usually associated with more than 90% of melanomas) that provoke a strong immune system response against cancer cells. Sending a genetic instruction code to a cell to produce an antigen or protein is the same principle as for Covid-19, where the mRNA vaccine targeted the Spike protein of the SARS-Cov virus.
Merck and Moderna too
BioNTech is apparently not the only company working on a cancer vaccine project. About twenty scientific teams around the world are doing work. On October 12, Merck and Moderna Laboratories, which have been collaborating on a cancer vaccine since 2016, announced that they had reached an agreement to develop and commercialize their mRNA vaccine against melanoma.
Currently in a phase II trial, this vaccine, tested in combination with a cancer drug, has shown promising results. The researchers found a remission of melanoma in 40% of the mice without recurrence. This is a therapeutic vaccine and not preventive vaccines like those that protect against viruses that are responsible for the development of certain cancers. Currently, two vaccines of this type already exist: the vaccine against the hepatitis B virus (responsible for liver cancer) and the vaccine against papillomavirus (responsible for cancer of the cervix).
In addition to gene and cell therapies
Therapeutic mRNA vaccines are a new step in the fight against cancer, complementing the extraordinary advances in immunotherapy in recent years, including CAR-T cell therapy – which combines gene therapy and cell therapy – which has shown its effectiveness against blood cancers. “The range of cancer treatments has been turned upside down with the arrival of new drugs, known as specific immunotherapy. Among them are immune checkpoint inhibitors and CAR-T cells, which are T-lymphocytes taken from the patient’s blood and then genetically modified in laboratory before being reinjected into the patient,” the National Cancer Institute specifies.
An mRNA vaccine would therefore make it possible to supplement CAR-T therapy, which is less effective against solid tumors, which represent 90% of human cancers.
Therapeutic vaccines to treat cancers that have already been diagnosed or prevent their recurrence would therefore be a major step forward in the fight against cancer, which causes nearly 10 million deaths worldwide according to 2020 figures from the World Health Organization.