Two weeks ago, Linda Geddes, the science correspondent for The Guardian, contributed two articles, the first describing how the Covid pandemic ushered in a golden era for vaccine research, and the second highlighting the potential for vaccines to treat cancer. Brendan Wren, a molecular biologist from London, said, “I guess a silver lining has been the rapid development of different vaccine technology platforms.” Dr Paul Burton, chief medical officer for Moderna, which created a successful mRNA vaccine for Covid, is optimistic that within five years his company will be able to offer treatments for different types of cancer.
The three diagrams that accompany today’s blog, and the accompanying captions, have been adapted from The Guardian articles. As seen above right: (1) a Biopsy of a patient’s tumour is acquired and then sent to a laboratory. Next, genetic material is sequenced to identify mutations that are not present in healthy cells.
The next two phases (seen left) consist of: (2) Selection, where an algorithm based on machine learning identifies which mutations are driving the cancer’s growth and are thus likely to trigger the immune system; and (3) Instruction, where a molecule of messenger RNA is created that contains the necessary instructions for making antigens that will elicit an immune response. The final phase (seen below) consists of: (4) an Injection, in which the mRNA, once injected, is translated into pieces of protein that are identical to those found in tumour cells. Immune cells then encounter and destroy the cancer cells.
In December 2022, Moderna announced the preliminary results for 157 patients with skin cancer who had been treated with its mRNA-based cancer vaccine and reported a 44% reduction in death or the cancer returning when compared with existing immunotherapy treatment. The German company BioNTech, which developed a successful mRNA vaccine for Covid with Pfizer, announced earlier in 2023 that it would be working with the National Health Service (NHS) in England to launch a trial of one of its cancer vaccine candidates later this year.
The FDA has recently granted breakthrough therapy designation to Moderna’s personalised cancer vaccine, meaning that its regulatory review will be expedited, with Burton commenting, “I think it was an order of magnitude that the pandemic sped [this technology] up by. It has also allowed us to scale up manufacturing, so we’ve got extremely good at making large amounts of vaccine very quickly.” As Geddes concluded, “The pandemic has been bad, and for some people terrible. But surely, there is a silver lining worth being thankful for.”