Could Covid vaccine technology crack cancer?

They are the husband and wife team behind one the most successful Covid vaccines, yet in the UK they are barely known. Professors Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci co-founded the German company BioNTech in 2008, exploring new technology involving messenger RNA (mRNA), to treat cancer. When the pandemic struck they partnered with Pfizer to use the same approach to create a Covid vaccine.

Now the doctors are hopeful it could lead to new treatments for melanoma, bowel cancer and other tumour types. BioNTech has several trials in progress, including one where patients are given a personalised vaccine, to prompt their immune system to attack their disease. The mRNA technology being used works by sending an instruction or blueprint to cells to produce an antigen or protein.

In Covid this antigen is part of the spike protein of the virus. In cancer it would be a marker on the surface of tumour cells.

This teaches the immune system to recognise and target affected cells for destruction. Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Prof Tureci said: “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.”

Harnessing the power of mRNA to produce vaccines was unproven until Covid. But the success of mRNA vaccines in the pandemic has encouraged scientists working with the technology in cancer.

BioNTech’s mRNA cancer trials started long before the pandemic, and have shown some early encouraging signals.

“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,” Prof Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said.

“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.”

Caution is needed. Many promising cancer trials end in failure. It may be several years before we know if BioNTech’s treatments for bowel cancer, melanoma and other tumour types really do live up to the hype.

Legal fight

There is no doubt though that Covid mRNA vaccines have been highly successful and made billions for BioNTech, Pfizer and Moderna.

But a huge legal tussle is under way surrounding the innovation behind mRNA vaccines. US firm Moderna has started legal action against Pfizer and BioNTech for patent infringement – in essence claiming key elements of their mRNA technology were copied. Prof Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive officer, says the company will vigorously defend against the allegations.

“Our innovations are original,” he said.

“We have spent 20 years of research in developing these type of treatments and of course we will fight for this, for our intellectual property.”

These patent disputes will not stop the roll-out of Covid vaccines – all booster jabs used by the NHS are mRNA vaccines. It is a technology that came of age in the pandemic. The question now is can it take on cancer?