Vaccines to treat cancer possible by 2030, say BioNTech founders

This technology is at the heart of the two best-known anti-COVID vaccines in the world (Comirnaty from Pfizer/BioNTech and Spikevax from Moderna): messenger RNA (Messenger RiboNucleic Acids). Pioneers in this field, Professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci co-founded the German company BioNTech in 2008 to explore the therapeutic possibilities offered by the latter, before joining forces with the Pfizer laboratory to develop a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine effective against COVID-19. Since the arrival of the anti-Covid vaccination, the RNA molecule has therefore been talked about a lot, especially since, if these vaccines are a novelty for the general public, none having ever obtained marketing authorization. on the market, the approach has been under study for several years in laboratories. Its place in the therapeutic arsenal should therefore continue to expand: research on RNA-based therapies is intensifying in medical fields as varied as infectiology, inflammatory diseases, rare diseases and cancerology.

However, it turns out that the team led by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci is one of the pioneers who have been working for more than 10 years on RNA vaccination strategies to fight against… cancers! And the two specialists have just announced during an interview with the BBC channel that a cancer vaccine using this same technology could be available in just eight years, particularly against melanoma and bowel cancer. ” Yes, we believe that a cure for cancer, or to change the lives of cancer patients, is within reach. declared Professor Ozlem Tureci during the program “Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg”. “ We think that will happen, definitely, before 2030. continued Professor Ugur Sahin. It is unlikely that a vaccine of this type would be “universal”, but rather that patients would benefit from an individualized injection, i.e. a dose that targets the exact cancer diagnosed, and which would allow the system immune system to recognize it and attack it using mRNA technology.

“We have learned how to make vaccines better and faster”

The goal we have is to be able to use the individualized vaccine approach to ensure that directly after surgery, patients receive a personalized and individualized vaccine, and we induce an immune response that allows T lymphocytes (killer cells essential in the response immune against viruses and cancers) in the patient’s body to screen the body for remaining tumor cells and ideally eliminate the tumor cells. », adds Professor Ugur Sahin. Explaining how the discovery of the COVID-19 vaccine is likely to help create a vaccine against cancer, Prof. Ozlem Tureci adds that: “ we learned how to make vaccines better and faster. We have learned from many people how the immune system responds to mRNA. It will certainly speed up our cancer vaccine as well..” Additionally, cancer research within BioNTech had begun long before the COVID-19 pandemic and showed some early encouraging signals in some clinical trials.

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When journalist Laura Kuenssberg asked them if there was a risk that the cancer vaccine might not work, Professor Ozlem Tureci replied: “ I do not think so. Everything we’ve learned about the immune system and what we’re doing with a cancer vaccine shows, in principle, a clear activity: we can induce these killer T cells, and we can direct them. Every step and every patient we treat in these cancer trials helps us better understand what we’re fighting against and how to fix it. As Inserm explains on this subject, messenger RNAs are produced from portions of DNA that correspond to genes coding for proteins. An mRNA is in a way the “photocopy” of the page of the genome where the instructions for producing a given protein are written. This photocopy is intended to be read by the protein synthesis machinery and then to be destroyed. Thus, the lifetime of an mRNA is short, ranging from only a few minutes to a few days at most.

The use of therapeutic RNA against cancers

With mRNA vaccines, the objective is to produce a protein of the targeted infectious agent (an “antigen”, a molecule capable of triggering an immune response) by cells of the vaccinated person. For this, he is administered the corresponding mRNA. “ In the case of anti-Covid vaccination, it is the mRNA coding for the protein that allows the SARS-CoV2 virus to enter our cells, the Spike protein. Our cells then manufacture this protein and “present” it on their surface. The immune system recognizes it as if it were carried by the virus itself and activates the defense mechanisms and the memory response. Following this, the cells which have received the mRNA and express the protein of interest on their surface are rapidly destroyed. And the vaccine mRNA with. “, emphasizes Inserm. Compared to traditional vaccines, the advantage of this approach is the ease of production of an mRNA: no need to cultivate potentially dangerous germs and to purify some of their components, complex and costly processes necessary for the production of conventional vaccines.

In addition, Inserm specifies that in addition to coding for an antigen, RNA molecules stimulate innate immunity: thus, it is not necessary to add an adjuvant to the vaccine preparation. But how can this approach be well adapted to cancers? First of all, the vaccine will not be preventive, but curative: we are not preparing the immune system to be effective against future and possible cancer cells, but to ensure that it restores and focuses its action when a cancer has developed. . Beyond this time difference, the Arc Foundation for cancer research indicates that the principle is the same, namely “farea in such a way as to expose representative samples of cancer cells to immune cells, in an appropriate inflammatory context. But researchers face a significant hurdle: The cancer cells that make up tumors can be studded with a wide variety of different proteins, making it extremely difficult to manufacture a vaccine that targets all cancer cells and none. healthy tissue.

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