Cancer Just Got a Little Less Scary

BioNTech's mRNA vaccine appears to prevent pancreatic cancer's return in phase one trial
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 11, 2023 11:00 AM CDT
It's a 'Milestone' for Cancer Vaccines
In this photo, a technician inspects filled vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the company's facility in Puurs, Belgium, in March 2021.   (Pfizer via AP)

BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine overshadowed its development of an mRNA vaccine to target cancer, but that vaccine takes center stage in a phase one trial, offering new hope for the treatment of notoriously deadly and stubborn pancreatic cancers. Some 90% of pancreatic cancer patients who have tumors surgically removed see new ones develop within seven to nine months, per CNN. Chemotherapy rarely eliminates the cancer, which proves fatal in 88% of cases. But the vaccine seemed to trigger an immune response in half of the 16 patients treated, who showed no sign of relapse during the 18 months they were tracked, "a finding that outside experts described as extremely promising," the New York Times reports.

This is not a one-size-fits-all vaccine. Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York sent samples of tumors extracted from all 16 patients to scientists at BioNTech, who developed personalized vaccines based on the genetic makeup of certain mutated proteins found on the cancer cells. These vaccines use messenger RNA to instruct cells to produce the same proteins found on the cancer cells so as to provoke an immune response, according to a study published Wednesday in Nature. All 16 patients received a vaccine within nine weeks of surgery, along with chemotherapy and "a drug intended to keep tumors from evading people's immune responses," per the Times.

Researchers can't be certain that the vaccine alone is responsible for provoking the immune response seen in eight patients. But they're confident that's what happening, and outside experts are heralding the result as a "milestone" success, per the Times. One of the study participants tells CNN that she's been cancer-free for almost three years. The vaccine-activated immune response also seemed to have benefits beyond the pancreas, as an unusual growth in the liver of one patient disappeared, per the Times. In the eight patients who didn't show an adequate immune response, two remained cancer-free, per CNN. In the six others, tumors returned in about 13 months.

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But researchers think they can explain why the vaccine didn't work as intended for this group. Five of the eight (and two patients in the better-faring group) had undergone a type of pancreatic cancer surgery where their spleens were removed, and as CNN reports, the mRNA vaccine concentrates in the spleen, which is key to the development of T-cells that attack tumors. The downside is that each vaccine dose costs about $100,000, and each patient received eight doses. BioNTech may be able to further reduce the cost (the experimental treatment cost about $350,000 per dose a decade ago), as well as shorten development time to four weeks from the current six. (More cancer vaccine stories.)

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