mRNA Cancer Treatment: Covid Vaccine Giant BioNTech Touts Promising Early Data

Topline

German biotech BioNTech on Monday highlighted compelling preliminary data from a clinical trial evaluating a new mRNA-based cancer therapy, an early indication the technology behind some of the most effective Covid-19 vaccines could potentially unlock new treatments for cancer as well as targeting other infectious diseases.

Key Facts

BioNTech said data from an early stage clinical trial suggests combining an mRNA vaccine that trains the immune system to recognize and respond to a protein on the surface of cancer cells with an existing cancer treatment could help expand the range of cancers it can tackle.

CAR-T cell therapy—short for chimeric antigen receptor T cells, where a patient’s immune cells are engineered to target and destroy cancer cells—is already approved to treat blood cancers but hasn’t shown much promise against solid tumors.

The early results suggest the mRNA vaccine, called CARVac, amplifies the effect of the CAR-T treatment and enables engineered cells to get into tumors and destroy cancer cells.

The treatment was well tolerated by the 16 patients in the study, who had a variety of cancers, said Dr. John Haanen, of the Netherlands Cancer Institute, who led the study and presented the data at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting on Sunday.

Of these, 14 patients could be evaluated for efficacy, six of whom showed a “partial response” to treatment, Haanen said.

While Haanen said the findings are promising, even “remarkable,” in some cases, he urged caution given the early nature of the work.

What We Don’t Know

Whether the treatment works. There is not enough data to properly evaluate how effective this new treatment combination might be, if at all. It is also possible new safety issues and side effects could emerge in larger, longer trials. Only a few of the patients in the trial—five, or around a third—were actually given the CARVac vaccine, and more data will be needed to demonstrate its role in boosting the effect of CAR-T therapy.

Crucial Quote

Dr. Özlem Türeci, co-founder and chief medical officer at BioNTech, said the findings support the company’s assumption that targeting markers on cancer cells is a good strategy to fight “hard-to-treat solid tumors with an otherwise poor prognosis, such as advanced testicular cancer.” The preliminary data “indicate that the successes of CAR-T in hematological [blood] cancers may indeed be transferred to solid tumors.”

Key Background

While mRNA-driven biotech companies like BioNTech, CureVac and Moderna are best known for their Covid-19 vaccines, the companies initially hoped to deploy the technology to fight cancer. In addition to a burgeoning pipeline of vaccines targeting other infectious diseases, many, including BioNTech, have retained sizable cancer projects. A vaccine for cancer would effectively train the body to recognize and destroy cancer cells as other vaccines do with invading pathogens, focusing on unique markers only present on the cancer cells. In theory, vaccines could harness the immune system to both treat and prevent cancer, though preventative shots are currently limited to stopping viruses like HPV and Hepatitis B that can cause cancer.

Further Reading

The tangled history of mRNA vaccines (Nature)

Reference-www.forbes.com

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