Vaccines that target cancer could be available before the end of the decade, according to the husband and wife team behind one of the most successful Covid vaccines of the pandemic.
Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who co-founded BioNTech, the German firm that partnered with Pfizer to manufacture a revolutionary mRNA Covid vaccine, said they had made breakthroughs that fuelled their optimism for cancer vaccines in the coming years.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Prof Türeci described how the mRNA technology at the heart of BioNTech’s Covid vaccine could be repurposed so that it primed the immune system to attack cancer cells instead of invading coronaviruses.
Asked when cancer vaccines based on mRNA might be ready to use in patients, Prof Sahin said they could be available “before 2030”.
An mRNA Covid vaccine works by ferrying the genetic instructions for harmless spike proteins on the Covid virus into the body. The instructions are taken up by cells which churn out the spike protein. These proteins, or antigens, are then used as “wanted posters” – telling the immune system’s antibodies and other defences what to search for and attack.
The same approach can be taken to prime the immune system to seek out and destroy cancer cells, said Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer. Rather than carrying code that identifies viruses, the vaccine contains genetic instructions for cancer antigens – proteins that stud the surfaces of tumour cells.
BioNTech was working on mRNA cancer vaccines before the pandemic struck but the firm pivoted to produce Covid vaccines in the face of the global emergency. The firm now has several cancer vaccines in clinical trials. Türeci said the development and success of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is similar to the Moderna Covid shot, “gives back to our cancer work”.
The German firm hopes to develop treatments for bowel cancer, melanoma and other cancer types, but substantial hurdles lie ahead. The cancer cells that make up tumours can be studded with a wide variety of different proteins, making it extremely difficult to make a vaccine that targets all of the cancer cells and no healthy tissues.
Türeci told Kuenssberg that BioNTech had learned how to manufacture mRNA vaccines faster during the pandemic, and had a better understanding of how people’s immune systems responded to mRNA. The intense development and rapid rollout of the Covid shot had also helped medicines regulators work out how to approve the vaccines. “This will definitely accelerate also our cancer vaccine,” she added.
But Türeci remained cautious about the work. “As scientists we are always hesitant to say we will 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 was suing BioNTech and its partner, the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, for patent infringement over the company’s Covid-19 vaccine.
Asked about that, Sahin said: “Our innovations are original. We have spent 20 years of research in developing this type of treatment and of course we will fight for our intellectual property.”