The Revolutionary Potential of mRNA Vaccines

A New Era in Medicine

You likely first heard of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines during the global pandemic, when the first two COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, were approved for use in the United States¹.

This groundbreaking technology not only helped us combat a global pandemic, with over 650 million doses of mRNA vaccines administered in the U.S. alone, it’s now paving the way for potentially revolutionary treatments in other areas, especially cancer².

What is mRNA? 

You may already be familiar with DNA, which provides the original instructions for making proteins. mRNA acts as a copy of these instructions, guiding cells on how to construct the proteins. Scientists can use mRNA to create copies of the instructions for potential protein antigens (usually a foreign substance that can cause an immune reaction in the body - cancer cells can also be antigens).³

mRNA vaccines use the mRNA molecule to tell your immune system how to fight off specific germs before you get sick. Unlike traditional vaccines, which use a weakened or inactive form of a virus or a piece of it, mRNA vaccines contain a piece of genetic code.⁴ This code teaches your cells to produce a protein found on the surface of the virus, like the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus. Then, once your immune system is trained, when it encounters  this protein structure in the future, it will recognize it and attack the virus without having ever been in contact with the virus before!⁵

Exciting Developments in Cancer Treatment

Personalized Vaccines for Melanoma

In the United Kingdom, the first personalized mRNA cancer vaccine for melanoma (a serious skin cancer) is now in phase 3 trials.⁶ This mRNA vaccine works by using DNA sequencing of a patient’s tumor to customize the treatment for that patient. They are also looking at whether the vaccine can work for other types of cancer, such as kidney, lung, and bladder.⁷

Promising Results for Pancreatic Cancer

In 2023, a National Institutes of Health-funded team published the results of their small-scale clinical trial on a personalized mRNA vaccine for pancreatic cancer patients in Nature.⁸ The initial results showed that study participants who had strong T-cell activation, e.g. strong immune response, to the vaccine did not have their cancer return 1.5 years after treatment. In contrast, the patients who did not have a strong immune response or were not healthy enough to receive all of the doses saw recurrence on average within a year.⁹

Research in Brain Cancer Treatment

A team of researchers at the University of Florida are also using mRNA technology in the fight against brain cancer in children and adults. They have dedicated the last 10 years working on an mRNA-based vaccine that is now in early-phase clinical trials. They have started with four adult glioblastoma patients and hope to trial the vaccine with children who have pediatric high-grade glioma soon.¹⁰

The Future of mRNA Technology

The potential of mRNA vaccines extends far beyond COVID-19. In the United States, the FDA-approved prostate cancer vaccine, sipuleucel-T, is just the beginning.¹¹  As research progresses, highly personalized medicine tailored to each person’s tumor could become a reality, leading to more effective and targeted treatments.¹² The research and development of mRNA vaccines hold immense promise. By harnessing the power of genetic instructions, scientists are opening new frontiers in medical treatment, offering hope for cures and better outcomes for patients with various types of cancer. As clinical trials advance, the future of healthcare looks brighter, with the potential to save countless lives.¹³

  1. Explaining mRNA Vaccines

  2. Number of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the United States as of April 26, 2023, by vaccine manufacturer

  3. Antigen

  4. Explaining mRNA Vaccines

  5. What are mRNA vaccines and how do they work?

  6. ‘Real hope’ for cancer cure as personal mRNA vaccine for melanoma trialled

  7. ‘Real hope’ for cancer cure as personal mRNA vaccine for melanoma trialled

  8. An mRNA vaccine to treat pancreatic cancer

  9. An mRNA vaccine to treat pancreatic cancer

  10. Brain cancer in children is notoriously hard to treat – a new mRNA cancer vaccine triggers an attack from within

  11. Precision medicine meets cancer vaccines

  12. Precision medicine meets cancer vaccines

  13. ‘Real hope’ for cancer cure as personal mRNA vaccine for melanoma trialled

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