This summer, Omar Rodriguez, 47, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. And even though he had surgery to get rid of the tumor, there’s a 70 percent possibility that it will return within the next five years.
Now, to beat the odds, Rodriguez will be among the first people in the United States to receive a revolutionary, individualized vaccine made by BioNTech, which uses the same mRNA technology in Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, to fight cancer, according to a report by NBC News.
mRNA-assisted cancer vaccines aren’t a new rodeo for BioNTech, as the company was founded 13 years ago with the goal of creating cancer therapies. Its successful COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer could be seen as just an extremely lucrative side project, as the company’s experimental vaccine is in a phase 2 clinical trial, with Rodriguez as one of the participants.
BioNTech aims for cancer
Colorectal cancer, which has been on the rise among persons under the age of 65 for the past decade, was chosen by BioNTech as a potential vaccine target due to the disease’s relatively high relapse rate. Its novel, experimental vaccine, which can target up to 20 mutations, trains people’s immune systems to spot cancer cells, attack them, and hopefully, kill them.
“Instead of using more traditional chemotherapy, it’s now trying to get the body’s own immune system to fight cancer,” explained Dr. Scott Kopetz, a professor of gastrointestinal medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Kopetz is leading the phase 2 clinical trial of the vaccine in the United States, while additional trials are recruiting patients in Belgium, Germany, and Spain, which will enroll 200 people.
Patients must have fragments of cancer DNA in their blood to join the trial, which can be detected through liquid biopsy. This must be the case even if they had surgery or chemotherapy.
The entire process takes around six weeks from tumor biopsy to shot: Participants in the four-year clinical experiment will get one vaccine injection every six weeks for six weeks to build immune responses. After then, they’ll go to a biweekly schedule for roughly a year, then every couple of weeks.
Fighting cancer with mRNA vaccines
mRNA vaccines, in case you missed it, have been a popular topic among scientists for decades: The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to highlight the technology. Treatment or cures for chronic diseases, such as HIV and cancer, are among the seemingly limitless possibilities. In fact, in mice and monkey trials, another experimental mRNA vaccine was proven to be safe and to elicit the necessary antibody and cellular immune responses against an HIV-like virus.
While most vaccines contain a weakened or dead bacteria or virus, these new vaccines use a molecule called messenger RNA (or mRNA for short). Strands of mRNA, or messenger RNA, are little pieces of genetic information that instruct the body on how to produce proteins, which are the basic building blocks of all cells. The aim behind an mRNA vaccine, whether for Covid or cancer, is to train the immune system to target a specific protein using genetic material.
While this is the spike protein on the virus’s surface for the coronavirus, it could be a protein on the surface of a tumor cell in the case of cancer. Once the immune system recognizes the protein, antibodies or T cells can be produced to fight and destroy it, as well as the cells that contain it.
And perhaps one of the best qualities of mRNA therapies is their speed. These tailored treatments can be designed and produced at breakneck speeds, and we’re still at the dawn of the technology, which suggests there is a lot of room for hope for the arrival of a slew of other new mRNA vaccines.