Cancer vaccine: jabs to protect against tumours explained - as BioNTech founders say could be available before 2030
Currently, the HPV vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus, known to cause cervical cancer and others, and the hepatitis B vaccine protects against a virus that can cause liver cancer
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Could there be vaccines to fight against cancer in the future?
Professor Ugur Sahin and Professor Ozlem Tureci co-founded BioNTech in Mainz, Germany, in 2008, to work mainly on cancer, but they changed focus to create a vaccine, working with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, when the Covid pandemic started.
The married couple have now said that lessons learnt in the pandemic will accelerate cancer treatments based on mRNA technology. The company’s vaccine uses mRNA to give the body a blueprint of the coronavirus’s spike protein, which then tells cells to make copies of the protein and teaches the immune system to recognise and fight it.
Prof Tureci said in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC on Sunday (16 October) : “What we have developed over decades for cancer vaccine development has been the tailwind for developing the Covid-19 vaccine, and now the Covid-19 vaccine and our experience in developing it gives back to our cancer work.”
She added that the developments had also helped regulators to learn about mRNA vaccines and how to deal with them, saying: “This will definitely accelerate our cancer vaccine.”
“We feel that a cure for cancer or to changing cancer patients’ lives is in our grasp,” she added.
“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.”
When asked when cancer vaccines might be widely available, Prof Sahin said it would be “before 2030”.
Currently, the HPV vaccine protects against the human papillomavirus, known to cause cervical cancer and others, and the hepatitis B vaccine protects against a virus that can cause liver cancer.
How would vaccines against cancer work?
Cancer vaccines would work similarly to the Covid one by teaching a person’s body to make antigen molecules found on their tumour so it can recognise and clear out cells left after surgery.
BioNTech presented results from an early-stage trial in pancreatic cancer patients at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago in June. Half of 16 patients given the vaccine were cancer-free 18 months later and in the other eight, there was no T-cell response, and six died or had their cancer return.
Cancer vaccines in the future would aim to inoculate people who have already had cancer against the disease returning, with BioNTech’s vaccine using mRNA to teach the body to recognise antigens, or chemical markers, found on that person’s tumour. If any tumour cells were left in the body after the tumour is removed, the immune system should then recognise and destroy them.
Other companies have cancer vaccines in trial stages, some of which are personalised, directly targeting proteins from a patient’s tumour, whereas others target antigens typically found on their kind of cancer.