Then there’s cancer. Scientists may never devise a single vaccine for cancer, because cancer is not a single disease but a constellation of more than 100 maladies, which we usually name for the place on the body where they originate. But what if we could respond to these hundreds of cancers with our own constellation of therapies that could train the body to attack a specific tumor?
This is the idea behind BioNTech’s cancer-immunotherapy research. It works something like this: For each cancer patient, BioNTech takes a tissue sample from a tumor to perform a genetic analysis. Based on that test, the company designs an individually tailored mRNA vaccine, which tells the patient’s cells to produce proteins associated with that specific tumor’s specific mutation. The immune system learns to search-and-destroy similar tumor cells throughout the body.
This cycle of analysis and design is not so different from the way BioNTech and Moderna swiftly analyzed Chinese scientists’ sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, identified the spike protein for attack, and made an effective therapy. “We hope that everything we’ve learned from COVID about producing and manufacturing mRNA can cross-fertilize the work on our off-the-shelf cancer treatments,” BioNTech’s Özlem Türeci told me. The company is currently in clinical trials for personalized vaccines in “basically every solid cancer,” she said, including melanoma, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. A 2021 analysis by University of North Carolina researchers in the journal Molecular Cancer pointed out that these cancer treatments have been slow to develop in recent years but that the COVID-19 breakthrough coincided with “promising” clinical trials in cancer vaccines. “We envision the rapid advancing of mRNA vaccines for cancer immunotherapy in the near future,” they concluded.