BioNTech but also Merck and Moderna announced this month that they were studying how technology involving messenger RNA (mRNA), used in their anti-Covid vaccine, could treat cancer. An anti-cancer vaccine is thus confirmed by 2030. Several teams of researchers have worked on the subject, particularly in Toulouse.
In the middle of Pink October, the annual communication campaign aimed at raising women’s awareness of the importance of breast cancer screening (and raising funds for research), and while a recent study showed a significant global increase in fourteen types of cancer in people under 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 couple of German researchers became famous during the Covid-19 pandemic because they were the ones who co-founded the biotechnology company BioNTech which, together with the Pfizer laboratory, made it possible to bring the vaccine against Covid community. The messenger RNA technology used by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be used in a cancer vaccine, the two researchers explained.
“A number of breakthroughs”
“As scientists, we are always hesitant to say that 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 for 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 that we have gained during of its development is 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 avoid 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 reaction against cancer cells. Sending a genetic instruction code to a cell to produce an antigen or a protein is the same principle as for Covid-19 where the mRNA vaccine targeted the Spike protein of the SARS-Cov-virus. 2.
Merck and Moderna too
BioNTech is obviously not the only company working on a cancer vaccine project. About twenty scientific teams around the world are carrying out 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 an anticancer drug, has shown promising results. The researchers found a remission of melanoma in 40% of mice, without recurrence. This is a therapeutic vaccine and not preventive vaccines like those that risk against the viruses responsible for the development of certain cancers. Currently, there are already two vaccines of this type: the vaccine against the hepatitis B virus (responsible for liver cancer) and that against the 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 that complements the extraordinary progress made 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 offer of anti-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 the laboratory before being reinjected into the patient”, specifies the National Cancer Institute.
An mRNA vaccine will therefore complement CAR-T therapy, which is less effective against solid tumours, which represent 90% of cancers.
Therapeutic vaccines to treat cancers that have already been affected or prevent their recurrence, therefore constitute a huge step forward in the fight against cancer, which causes nearly 10 million deaths worldwide according to 2020 figures from the World Health Organization.