Companies like Moderna and Pfizer’s partner BioNTech are using the messenger RNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccine production to spur cancer patients’ bodies to make vaccines that they hope will help prevent cancer.

The companies, as reported by USA TODAY, are already conducting clinical trials to see whether a vaccine made with the same mRNA technology used to prevent COVID-19 could boost the immune system enough to search out and destroy lingering cancer cells.

The technology, they also hope, will help design treatments to fight off advanced cancer tumors.

The mRNA is a single-stranded RNA molecule that is complementary to one of the DNA strands of a gene. The mRNA is an RNA version of ribonucleic acid. 

According to USA Today, while the findings of the clinical trial may not be known for another two years, the researchers noted that the outcome could be another immune therapy that will help the body to fight off tumours.

“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 melanoma expert at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Sullivan, however, said he doesn’t expect mRNA to be a miracle. “This is not the answer,” he said. “But, hopefully, it’s part of the answer.”

One of the early participants in the clinical trial, Bobby Fentress, 68, who received an experimental cancer vaccine at Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, however, noted that he hopes that the vaccine, made with mRNA, will prevent his melanoma from recurring. 

Fentress got his first shots of mRNA tailored to his tumor in April 2020, at Sarah Cannon Research Institute.

“They knocked me off my butt for about two days,” he said. “I’ve never been as cold in my life.”

He also began receiving what is called checkpoint blockade drugs to unleash his immune system against his cancer. He hopes the combination of lifting the brakes and adding soldiers to the fight will keep his tumor from ever coming back.

Early this spring, he finished nearly a year of that treatment.

It’s too soon to know whether the therapy will work, but his doctor, McKean, said he did well with the treatment.

“I’m cancer-free,” Fentress said. “I’m very humbled and very blessed.”

Moderna, in a process similar to the other companies, took cells from Fentress’s tumor. A computer analyzed the cells for tiny differences from normal cells that it could use as targets.

Then the company identified mutations that make protein variants found only on cancerous cells. They then create a single mRNA that triggers the body to make these proteins – just as COVID-19 vaccines trigger the production of the spike protein that sits on the surface of the virus. The presence of these protein fragments triggers the immune system to attack anything with that protein.

“My hope is that if we’re successful, we’ll be able to move into more tumor types where checkpoints haven’t been as successful,” said Meredith McKean, Fentress’ oncologist at Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville.

Cancer is challenging to treat because the body recognises cancer cells as part of itself and leaves them alone. Many of the targets of cancer therapy also are present in healthy cells, which is why cancer treatments are often so damaging.

Preventing recurrences of cancer is the ‘ideal setting’ for mRNA technology, says Dr. Özlem Türeci, co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech. 

Preventing recurrences is the “ideal setting” for mRNA technology, said Dr. Türeci.

 Once a tumor has been largely removed through surgery, a vaccine can help generate new immune soldiers known as T cells.

“The T cells will outnumber (cancer cells) and will be able to control them,” Türeci said.

So far, she said, Moderna, working with partner Merck, has tested these personalized vaccines in about 100 patients.

They aim eventually to make a personalized mRNA vaccine within about 45 days after the patient’s cancer surgery, during their recovery.

People who already have advanced cancer may not be able to wait for therapy. And while a few errant cancer cells are very diverse, once a tumor has spread throughout the body, it tends to develop consistent mutations, Türeci said.

So the companies also are developing treatments that can be premade and ‘taken off the shelf’ when a patient needs them.

Mutated cancer cells have proteins on their surface that can be targeted by an mRNA vaccine. For a tumor that has, say, five common mutations, a patient could get a combination of five of these vaccines.

On Friday, BioNTech announced it was launching a new trial for this approach, testing it in 120 melanoma patients in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S. The new treatment, given in connection with an antibody from Regeneron, is aimed at four tumor-associated antigens. More than 90% of melanoma tumors contain at least one of the four.

Researchers now have a better understanding of how to stimulate the immune system, said Ulrike Gnad-Vogt, interim chief development officer for CureVac, a German mRNA company.



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