Cancer vaccines could be available by the end of the decade, according to the husband and wife team behind one of the most successful Covid vaccines.
Ugur Şahin and Özlem Çureçi, who founded the German firm BioNTech, which collaborated with Pfizer to produce a revolutionary mRNA vaccine against Covid, said they have made a breakthrough that fuels their optimism about cancer vaccines in the coming years.
Speaking on the BBC’s Laura Kuensberg on Sunday, Professor Ciurechi described how the mRNA technology behind BioNTech’s Covid vaccine could be re-engineered to make the immune system attack cancer cells rather than invading coronaviruses.
Asked when mRNA-based cancer vaccines might be ready for use in patients, Professor Sahin said they could be available “by 2030”.
The Covid mRNA vaccine works by transferring the genetic instructions for the harmless spike proteins of the Covid virus into the body. The instructions are received by the cells that produce the spike protein. These proteins, or antigens, are then used as “search posters” – telling the immune system’s antibodies and other defense mechanisms what to look for and attack.
The same approach could be used to trick the immune system into seeking out and destroying cancer cells, said Ciurechi, BioNTech’s chief medical officer. Rather than carrying a code that identifies viruses, the vaccine contains the genetic instructions for cancer antigens — proteins that stitch the surfaces of tumor cells.
BioNTech had been working on mRNA cancer vaccines before the pandemic began, but in the face of the global emergency, the company turned to producing Covid vaccines. The firm now has several cancer vaccines in clinical trials. Ciurechi said the development and success of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, similar to Moderna’s Covid shot, “puts our cancer work back on track.”
The German firm hopes to develop treatments for bowel cancer, melanoma and other cancers, but significant hurdles lie ahead. The cancer cells that give rise to tumors can be riddled with a wide range of different proteins, making it extremely difficult to create a vaccine that targets all cancer cells and not healthy tissue.
Ciurechi told Kuensberg that BioNTech learned how to make mRNA vaccines faster during the pandemic and better understood how people’s immune systems respond to mRNAs. The intense development and rapid spread of the Covid-19 vaccine has also helped drug regulators work out how to approve vaccines. “It will certainly accelerate our cancer vaccine,” she added.
But Ciurechi was still cautious about the work. “As scientists, we’re always shy about saying we’re going to have a cure for cancer,” she said. “We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them.”
In August, Moderna said it did is suing BioNTech and its partner, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, for infringing the company’s Covid-19 vaccine patent.
Answering this question, Shahin said: “Our innovations are original. We have spent 20 years of research developing this type of treatment and of course we will fight for our intellectual property.”