The pioneer behind mRNA vaccines has revealed plans for a new vaccine that immunizes against cancer more than a decade before it strikes.
Dr Drew Weissman won the Nobel Prize this year for their discovery of a way to inject genetic instructions to induce an immune response against Covid, a discovery that helped save millions of lives and bring the world out of the pandemic.
Now, he is leveraging that discovery to create an mRNA vaccine against another of the world’s biggest killers – cancer.
The vaccines in development at the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr Weissman conducts his research, teach the body how to recognize tumor cells and fight them when they form.
Dr Drew Weissman, a vaccine researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has been a pioneer in mRNA vaccine research and won the Nobel prize for discovering how to deliver mRNA genetic instructions into the body to prompt an immune response against Covid
The mRNA platform could be easily encoded to target specific cancer types. This is a major advantage because cancers are highly specific to each patient and require treatment tailored specifically to them
The vaccines are geared towards people with genetic mutations that raise their risk of cancer, such as the BRCA gene that influences breast cancer risk.
Dr Weissman said at the Nobel Prize lecture on medicine: ‘The idea here is that you treat people before they develop cancer… and maybe completely prevent cancer from ever appearing in these patients.’
Cancers stemming from genetic mutations make up between five and 10 percent of the more than 18million cancers around the world each year.
Environmental and lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, stress, and physical inactivity can also raise the risk of the disease.
Dr Weissman and fellow researchers at UPenn set out to find a way to enhance the power of an mRNA vaccine by encoding it with genetic instructions for the body to produce a specific subset of immune cells that kill off cancer cells.
Within that set of genetic instructions injected into mice to produce an antibody response, the researchers included mRNA teaching the body to produce a protein called IL-12, which plays a crucial role as a messenger that facilitate communication between cells.
IL-12 directs the body to generate a specific type of immune cells called effector T cells, which Dr Weissman said could effectively clear out cancer from the body and even prevent it from occurring in people who are at highest genetic risk.
He said: ‘We know that it’s five or 10 years that cancer cells first start to appear before you’ve got full-fledged large tumors that impair function.
‘If we treat these people maybe every five years with a vaccine that only makes effector T cells, we’ll clean out, clear away, kill all of the transformed cells.’
Katalin Karikó (left) and Drew Weissman (right) were credited with helping to change the course of the pandemic. Before mRNA jabs were rolled out to millions of people worldwide to protect them against Covid, such technology was considered experimental. Researchers are now exploring if it could help beat cancer and other diseases
Introducing mRNA for IL-12 also boosted the activation and the reach of the effector T cells 10-fold. They became so widely distributed that they were found in both the spleen and lymph nodes.
One major advantage of an mRNA platform for Covid vaccines was its versatility, which was a big help when sinister new variants took over.
The platform can be adapted to incorporate genetic information that encodes for a variety of different pathogens, especially viruses.
They can also be easily encoded to target specific antigens, or proteins that sit on cancer cells and act as signals to the body that something is wrong.
This makes the mRNA tech especially appealing for protection against cancers, which are highly specific to each individual patient and require precise treatment tailored specifically to them.
There are currently 35 mRNA cancer vaccine candidates in the pipeline aimed toward fighting different cancers including melanoma, bladder, esophageal, renal, triple negative breast, and colorectal.
The umbrella term ‘cancer’ represents hundreds of different diseases, many of which would have been death sentences just a couple of decades ago.
Thanks to medical milestones in developing targeted therapies and drugs that prime the immune system to combat cancerous cells, some of the most intractable cancers, such as metastatic melanoma are highly treatable.
These staggering medical advancements mean cancer patients are a third less likely to die from the disease than they were just 30 years ago. Since 1990, 3.8 million cancer deaths have been averted.