Vaccines to treat cancer possible by 2030, say BioNTech founders

Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who co-founded BioNTech, the German company that partnered with Pfizer to make a breakthrough Covid mRNA vaccine, say Covid mRNA vaccine technology could be repurposed to help destroy cancer cells

Vaccines that target cancer could be available before the end of the decade, according to the husband and wife team behind one of the pandemic’s most successful Covid vaccines. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci said they had made breakthroughs that fueled their optimism for cancer vaccines in the years to come.

Speaking on the BBC on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Professor Türeci described how the mRNA technology at the heart of BioNTech’s Covid vaccine could be repurposed so that it primes the immune system to attack cancer cells instead of invade coronaviruses.

Asked when mRNA-based cancer vaccines might be ready for use in patients, Prof Sahin said they might be available “before 2030”.

A Covid mRNA vaccine works by carrying the genetic instructions for harmless spike proteins on the Covid virus into the body. The instructions are taken up by the cells which produce the spike protein. These proteins, or antigens, are then used as ” Wanted poster “ – telling immune system antibodies and other defenses what to look for and attack.

The same approach can be taken to trick the immune system into seeking out and destroying cancer cells, said Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer. Rather than carrying a code that identifies viruses, the vaccine contains genetic instructions for cancer antigens – proteins that stud the surface of tumor cells.

BioNTech was working on mRNA cancer vaccines before the pandemic hit, but the company 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 vaccine, “ give back to our cancer work”.

The German firm hopes to develop treatments for bowel cancer, melanoma and other types of cancer, but significant hurdles lie ahead. 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 no healthy tissue.

Türeci told Kuenssberg that BioNTech learned to make mRNA vaccines faster during the pandemic and had a better understanding of how people’s immune systems respond to mRNA. The intense development and rapid deployment of the Covid vaccine had also helped drug regulators figure out how to approve vaccines. “It will certainly speed up our cancer vaccine as well,” she added.

But Türeci remained cautious about the job. “As scientists, we are always hesitant to say that 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, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, for patent infringement on the company’s Covid-19 vaccine.

Asked about it, Sahin said:“Our innovations are original. We have spent 20 years of research in the development of this type of treatment and of course we will fight for our intellectual property”.

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