The race to develop new vaccine technology during the Covid crisis has led to hopes of making a critical breakthrough in the treatment of cancer. The BBC reports that the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, who worked with Pfizer to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology to create a Covid vaccine, are currently trialling an innovative cancer treatment.
Professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci are a husband and wife team who have been exploring the possibilities of mRNA technology since 2008, and trials for cancer treatments have been in place for several years. However, it wasn’t used in an approved vaccine until the pandemic made it a priority.
The speed and success rate of the mRNA Covid vaccine took everyone by surprise, and this has boosted hopes for the same rapid progress for a new cancer therapy. The vaccine works by deliberately triggering the immune system to produce antigens which would attack tumour cells.
Prof Ozlem Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, told the BBC: “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.”
She added: “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. 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.”
There are some legal issues which may unfortunately hamper the immediate progress of a cancer vaccine. The US drug firm Moderna claims that they hold the patent for mRNA technology, and are taking legal action against BioNTech and Pfizer. However, the genie is already out of the bottle, and further advances in vaccine technology are now inevitable.
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