Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci are some of the most impactful researchers in current times. The two co-founded BioNTech, the German firm that partnered with Pfizer to produce a revolutionary mRNA Covid vaccine, with over 2 billion doses administered so far.
Not only was this a revolutionary vaccine in our fight against the pandemic, but it was also a breakthrough mRNA vaccine, demonstrating a new technology that could pave the way for a new generation of vaccines.
But the two aren’t resting on their laurels, and are already working on the next big thing. According to them, we have quite a lot to look up to in terms of new mRNA vaccines, especially in an unexpected area: cancer. Asked when mRNA cancer vaccines could be ready to use in patients, Şahin said they could be available “before 2030”.
Speaking to the BBC, the two researchers said tangible breakthroughs fuel their optimism and they expect to see working cancer vaccines within a few years.
“Every step, every patient we treat in our cancer trials helps us to find out more about what we are against and how to address that,” Prof Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said.
“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.”
Unlike previously-developed vaccines, which typically insert a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies (or a fragment of it), mRNA vaccines use mRNA as a blueprint to get the body to produce a protein or a piece of protein that triggers an immune response.
The researchers explain: “mRNA acts as a blueprint and allows you to tell the body to produce the drug or the vaccine… and when you use mRNA as a vaccine, the mRNA is a blueprint for the ‘wanted poster’ of the enemy – in this case, cancer antigens which distinguish cancer cells from normal cells,” the researchers told BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.
There’s no doubt that mRNA has been wildly successful in the pandemic (not just for BioNTech, but also for Moderna, another company that developed a pioneering vaccine), but having them work for cancer is a whole new different ballgame.
However, this isn’t as crazy of a plan as it sounds, and it’s not exactly a new idea. Earlier this year, a UK trial administered its first cancer vaccine, and one year earlier, another personalized cancer vaccine trial was launched. In fact, BioNTech was founded primarily to use mRNA as individualized cancer immunotherapies — the pandemic was only a detour (although the company now explicitly also addresses infectious diseases).
The company has developed an mRNA-based human therapeutic for intravenous administration and aims to bring individualized mRNA-based cancer immunotherapy to clinical trials. Already, BioNTech has several trials in progress, including one Phase 2 trial of a cancer vaccine for advanced melanoma — a vaccine that they hope will help patients fight off advanced tumors and prevent recurrences. In another of the company’s trials, patients are given a personalized vaccine that would prime their immune system to seek and destroy cancer cells. The company is looking to address bowel cancer, melanoma, and several other forms.
Of course, many cancer projects that seemed promising had to be abandoned, and while the researchers are optimistic, there’s no guarantee of success.
The idea with the cancer vaccines is to offer genetic instructions for the body’s defense systems, teaching it to recognize cancer cells and attack them. But the major challenge is that cancer is not one unitary disease, and cancer cells that make up tumors can have a number of different peculiarities, making it extremely difficult to make a vaccine for all types of cancer cells.
Messenger RNA, or mRNA, was discovered in the early 1960s, and by the 1970s, researchers figured out how to deliver it into cells, but it wasn’t until the 2020 pandemic that the first mRNA vaccines truly became a thing. But when mRNA vaccines hit the stage, they did so in a big way, and they may be instrumental in helping us ultimately overcome the ongoing pandemic.
The striking success that BioNTech enjoyed with its coronavirus vaccine will “give back” to the company’s cancer efforts. In addition, the two researchers say recent experiences have taught them a lot about how to manufacture mRNA vaccines faster and navigate the complex waters of developing a new vaccine. “This will definitely accelerate also our cancer vaccine,” they say.
But Moderna, who also enjoyed a great deal of success with mRNA vaccines, is suing BioNTech for infringing their patents — basically, launching an accusation that parts of the mRNA vaccines were stolen. Şahin, BioNTech’s chief executive officer, denied all accusations.
“Our innovations are original,” he said. “We have spent 20 years of research in developing these type of treatments and of course we will fight for this, for our intellectual property.” This legal battle could prove instrumental for the upcoming future of mRNA vaccines, which seems brighter than ever.
Moderna is also working on its own cancer vaccines. The company’s stock valuation popped after it announced plans to team up with pharma giant Merck to develop a personalized cancer vaccine. Merck will pay Moderna $250 million just to be able to be a part of the vaccine-developing project, which shows just how much promise the company thinks this type of vaccine has, especially as cancer vaccines can be used either to prevent cancer or to treat an existing problem.