August 2, 2021

How COVID-19 vaccine mRNA tech could cure cancer, attack tumors

Bobby Fentress learned about messenger RNA months before the rest of the world.

About a year before Fentress got his double shots of COVID-19 vaccine made with mRNA, the painting contractor was infused with a personalized version to fight his cancer.

Fentress, 68, was an early participant in a clinical trial intended to see whether a vaccine made with the same technology used to prevent COVID-19 could boost the immune system enough to search out and destroy lingering cancer cells.

Companies like Moderna and Pfizer’s partner BioNTech, whose names are familiar from COVID-19 vaccines, are using mRNA to spur cancer patients’ bodies to make vaccines that will – they hope – prevent recurrences and treatments designed to fight off advanced tumors.

If they prove effective, which won’t be known for at least another year or two, they could be added to the arsenal of immune therapies designed to get the body to fight off its own tumors. 

“We feel pretty good about enrolling patients on these trials and are hopeful that ultimately they can demonstrate improved outcomes,” said Dr. Ryan Sullivan, a melanoma expert at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Sullivan doesn’t expect mRNA to be a miracle.

“This is not the answer,” he said. “But, hopefully, it’s part of the answer.” 

Doctors are cautious because cancer vaccine development “has been littered with vaccines that haven’t hit the mark,” said Dr. Stephen Hahn, who had a career as an oncologist before running the Food and Drug Administration from 2019 until early this year.

He said he’s more optimistic this time because of how much researchers have learned about the role the immune system plays in cancer.

“That gives us an edge to maybe finally get to the place where we need to be,” said Hahn, who recently took a post with a venture capital firm, Flagship Pioneering. “That would be just a remarkable step for all of us.”

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