The enormous promise of mRNA vaccines: could they defeat cancer?

The conspiracy theorists have come up with the wildest vaccine theories in the past year. Admittedly, it would be strange if they didn’t doubt something that sounds insane: Moderna scientists designed their mRNA vaccine on paper in 48 hours, days before Covid-19 officially arrived in the US. And it only took six weeks to start with animal testing. Seems implausible? 

While it is a borderline scientific miracle that proves how far we’ve come, this achievement was a long time coming. Scientists have had big plans for mRNA vaccines for a while now: and the likes of cancer, malaria, and perhaps even HIV are the next target. “We have been working on this for over 20 years. We always knew RNA would be a significant therapeutic tool,” said Drew Weissman, one of the scientists who worked on RNA, for Technology Review. 

What’s different? 

Unlike those vaccines you received as a kid or your regular flu shot, mRNA vaccines don’t include a weaker version of the actual virus. Instead, their goal is to guide the cells towards creating a protein that will provoke an immune response. 

This mechanism makes it highly effective: and, as it turns out, suitable to conquer deadly diseases that modern medicine still couldn’t quite crack. And that’s not all: they’re easy to tweak, fast to develop, not financially demanding, and safe to administer. No wonder that vaccinology, in general, is looking at RNA as the future. Here’s where things get even more exciting. 

Defeating cancer with personalized mRNA vaccines

Cancer patients go through arduous treatments that are too often ineffective. No wonder: each disease is unique, but pinpointing the precisely correct approach towards each patient isn’t something doctors can routinely do right now. 

mRNA cancer vaccines can be personalized and tailored for every single patient. As Moderna explains, next-generation sequencing allows them to identify mutations found on a patient’s cancer cells, neoepitopes. The immune system can distinguish them and thus tell cancer cells and normal cells apart. Using algorithms they’ve developed, they can identify which neoepitopes are the most likely to elicit the most robust immune response. The answer is different for every patient, but mRNA vaccines can keep up and take all the mutations into account. 

Beyond cancer

That’s not all. “Conventional” mRNA vaccines demonstrated their promise during this pandemic. But the next step could be self-amplifying RNAs that essentially multiply once they are in your system. 

Both types have shown promise in preclinical studies against a multitude of diseases, such as RSV, Rabies, Ebola, and HIV-1. Researchers’ dream is a flu vaccine that protects against all virus strains and eliminates the need to repeat vaccination every year. On top of that, the self-amplifying RNAs show potential as ideal vaccines for infectious diseases. A patent for a malaria vaccine has already been filed. 

While the Covid-19 pandemic showed us that new treatments could roll out incredibly efficiently, widespread use of mRNA vaccines for conditions such as cancer may take a while. More research, resources, and clinical trials are needed. However, the hope is that the post-pandemic certification processes will be faster without compromising safety. 

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