(p. C2) Scientists are . . . advancing mRNA vaccines and therapies to treat cancer, which poses a particular challenge because tumor cells arise from the body’s own cells and can easily deceive the immune system into thinking they are normal. Cancer patients today receive varying types of treatments, but they involve therapies manufactured outside the body. The mRNA researchers believe that the body’s own immune system can be used against cancer if it’s given the right tools.
BioNTech, now a household name for its Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, was founded in 2008 to pursue mRNA cancer treatments. The German company says that even at a low dose, a strong enough mRNA treatment can be developed to prompt immune cells to make certain proteins and to train the rest of the immune system to recognize and target tumor cells that express these same proteins. “It needs to be louder and more aggressive for cancer because the immune system needs stronger persuasion to attack something that appears to resemble a normal cell which it should respect and not attack,” said Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer.
The company’s pipeline includes at least 10 cancer vaccines in human clinical trials using mRNA for skin, pancreatic, ovarian and other tumors. Two of its most advanced programs in mid-stage clinical studies, one for melanoma and the other for head and neck cancer, harness mRNA to make specific proteins seen with these cancers that will prompt a vigorous response from the patient’s immune system. Research from BioNTech published in 2020 in the journal Nature showed that the treatment caused the lesions of melanoma patients to shrink.
Some of BioNTech’s other cancer treatments are tailored to individual patients. A tumor is removed surgically and then shipped to the company’s laboratories, where researchers sequence the DNA and search for proteins, using machine learning to decide which ones are needed for that individual’s therapy. To address how quickly cancer can spread in the body, BioNTech designs and develops these clinical-trial treatments in just four to six weeks—a potentially lifesaving turnaround time for more pressing cases.
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(Note: the online version of the essay has the date February 4, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)