Could COVID-19 vaccine technology be used to cure cancer?

cure for cancer pfizer vaccine
Photo via Marco Verch Professional Photographer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The scientist behind the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine could be setting her sights on cancer next, utilizing the mRNA technology that is making that vaccine successful in protecting against the virus. Perhaps the COVID vaccine technology could even help produce the cure for cancer.

According to an Associated Press report, Ozlem Tureci, who founded BioNTech with her husband Ugur Sahin, was working on a way to harness the body’s immune system to tackle tumors when reports of what would eventually become known as COVID-19 first began surfacing in China. 

“Over breakfast,” the article noted, “the couple decided to apply the technology they’d been researching for two decades to the new threat.” 

That led to the development of their mRNA vaccine—which saw their small, Germany-based company team up with Pfizer and China’s Fosun Pharma in bringing the vaccine to the global market. That partnership was necessary to address two of BioNTech’s biggest issues, conducting the large-scale clinical trials required and scaling up the manufacturing process to meet the great demand to fight a virus affecting the entire world. 

“It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real time,” Tureci told the AP.

A December 2020 USA Today profile on Tureci noted that as the company’s chief medical officer, she’s spent more than a decade developing vaccines based on mRNA technology. “The approach takes advantage of the natural process cells use to translate the underlying DNA blueprint into the proteins that perform all the functions of life,” the article explains. 

She’s led efforts on two different cures for cancer, using mRNA technology to develop vaccines.

For one, designed for melanoma patients, the mRNA targets antigens common to 95% of all melanomas, turning the immune system against them. For the second, as USA Today notes, “BioNTech takes the genetics of a person’s tumor and designs a personal mRNA vaccine to train their immune system to fight it. About a month after sequencing biopsied tissue, BioNTech can provide a completed vaccine, intended to be used in connection with other immunotherapy approaches.” 

As she observed, “mRNA is for us a way to modulate the immune system. The immune system originally developed over millions of years of evolution to defend us against pathogens, against viruses.”

Sahin, in an Insider article covering the couple, added, “Because of our decades of research on mRNA technologies in individual cancer medicine, we had both the knowledge and the technology to develop custom mRNA vaccines in a matter of weeks. We had done this hundreds of times before. So, as immunologists, we were able to precisely define how the mRNA vaccine should target the immune system against the virus.”

As for when vaccines that could help cure cancer might become available, she cautions, “That’s very difficult to predict in innovative development.” But she did offer a target date, adding, “Within only a couple of years, we will also have our vaccines (against) cancer at a place where we can offer them to people.”

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Sources: Associated Press, USA Today, Insider

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