How COVID vaccines could actually help scientists find a cure for cancerThank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
The new coronavirus could help us cure cancer. ok determined cancers.
The A covid pandemic gave the pharmaceutical industry the push it needed to finally complete the development informational RNA technology so companies like Moderna and Pfizer could use the technology for its COVID vaccines.
Now the pharmaceutical industry is using the same mRNA platforms for crab vaccines. Dozens of these new vaccines are in development — and experts say there’s a chance they’ll lead to the biggest reduction in cancer mortality in decades.
A key difference between mRNA vaccines for COVID and mRNA vaccines for cancer is worth noting. MRNA vaccines prevent COVID. They will not prevent cancer. Instead, they will treat cancer once you’ve caught it. In this sense, “vaccine”—although that is the commonly accepted term—is something of a misnomer when it comes to mRNA applications for cancer. “Therapy” might be a better term.
In any case, mRNA cancer vaccines have been in development for several years, but the first tangible sign of real progress came only last week. On Dec. 13, Massachusetts-based Moderna and partner Merck—the New Jersey pharmaceutical giant—announced initial results from the first-ever randomized human trial of an mRNA cancer vaccine.
The two companies enrolled 157 people with late-stage melanoma for the trial. The volunteers received either the Keytruda antibody therapy or Keytruda combined with a new vaccine called mRNA-4157. Adding mRNA-4157 reduced the risk of relapse or death by 44 percent, the companies reported.
The key to mRNA-4157 and any other mRNA cancer vaccine is that it can be tailored to the individual patient. As its name suggests, “messenger RNA” is simply a medium that transmits a message. The message is a fragment of genetic material – RNA – that tells a person’s immune system to produce a certain disease-fighting protein.
Developers can code mRNA to produce a wide range of proteins. For, say, preventing COVID—or reducing various cancers. “Flexibility is extremely attractive,” Elias Sayor, a University of Florida neurosurgeon whose RNA engineering lab works on cancer vaccines, told The Daily Beast.
But the flexibility that makes the mRNA vaccine so attractive is also a problem. How do you know exactly what RNA to add to a patient’s vaccine? “Not all cancers are the same,” Saior explained. “To overcome this, prediction algorithms are used to identify unique information in an individual’s cancer that will be recognized by their immune system.”
MRNA had been in development for nearly 50 years before COVID finally forced governments to pour money into the effort, helping the industry finally complete the first mRNA vaccines two years ago. The basic platform for mRNA injection in cancer is actually quite old. It is algorithms which are new.
“The manufacturing process begins with the identification of genetic mutations in the patient’s tumor cells that could lead to neoantigens,” US National Cancer Institute explain. Neoantigens are proteins that form on cancer cells. “Computer algorithms then predict which neoantigens are most likely to bind to T-cell receptors and stimulate an immune response,” the institute added.
In theory, the mRNA maker could produce a personalized cancer vaccine in as little as four weeks, Sayor said. In practice, we need many more mutation detection algorithms and many more tests before mRNA vaccines are ready for routine use in cancer.
Sayour emphasized that mRNA is likely to work better for some cancers than others. Not all cancers are “immunogenic,” meaning they elicit an immune response. Without an immune response, we may not know which protein to encode in an mRNA hit. “MRNA vaccines are likely to work in cancers like melanoma that are considered immunogenic,” Saior explained. Temper your expectations for other cancers.
There are other possible limitations to mRNA as a cancer drug. Henry Wang, a professor of chemical engineering who studies vaccine production at the University of Michigan, told The Daily Beast he worries about production.
You can’t make mRNA shots for cancer the same way you make mRNA shots for COVID. How do you scale and manage the production of a drug that requires such careful and detailed customization? “It creates a whole different set of [quality-control] and production issues,” Wang said.
There is also the question of cost. Because they are essentially boutique products, each vaccine will be designed for one or a few people and produced in small quantities. This means that mRNA cancer injections may turn out to be really expensive. It is possible that mRNA works great against some or many types of cancer, but is too expensive for most people. “Somebody has to address the issue of costs versus benefits,” Wang said.
Sayour, for one, said he was optimistic. Even allowing for customization and manufacturing issues, mRNA appears to be our best short-term pharmaceutical tool for reducing cancer deaths. “It seems to have the best balance between commercialization and personalization.”
If pharmaceutical developers can write multiple algorithms, complete large-scale trials, understand manufacturing processes, and nail the cost-benefit ratio, cancer vaccines may be viable and save many lives.
Even if they can’t, and mRNA injections for cancer fail, the underlying technology may have a bright future. Moderna is already working on mRNA injections for about two dozen diseases, including herpes and Zika. The German company BioNTech SE is even developing mRNA for multiple sclerosis.
MRNA started to prevent COVID. Cancer treatment may be next. We can bet that neither disease will be the last to be fought with this particular technology.
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