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Lifespan News – mRNA for Cancer Treatment

mRNA is not only useful against COVID-19.


Ryan O’Shea explains how BioNTech is using an mRNA approach to treat colon cancer and melanoma on this episode of Lifespan News.


The COVID-19 pandemic brought mRNA vaccines into the spotlight and has likely sped up the widespread adoption and use of this technology, but now BioNTech is using this tech to treat cancer as well.

BioNTech, a German biotechnology company, partnered with Pfizer to to release a COVID-19 vaccine using messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA. In late 2020, it became the first mRNA vaccine ever authorized, and on August 23, 2021, it became the first COVID-19 vaccine to receive full FDA approval. According to the New York Times, this BioNTech vaccine is being used in 125 countries around the world. As of September 2021, over 200 million doses of this mRNA vaccine have been administered in the United States.

Vaccines and treatments using mRNA look like they are here to stay, and while they are probably best known because of COVID-19, their development began years before this. Now their application for other diseases is being explored.

BioNTech has published data in the journal Science Translational Medicine for one of its mRNA cancer therapies for the treatment of colon cancer and melanoma. The researchers created an mRNA cocktail that, once delivered to the target cells, prompts them to produce four anticancer molecules. In mouse models of colon cancer and melanoma, the treatment was able to suppress tumors. The mRNAs included in the cocktail code for four cytokines chosen due to how they support the immune system to combat cancer.

Previous studies have shown that delivering cytokines to tumors through gene therapy can work but carries the risk of side effects. Using mRNA gets around this problem, as it allows for the transient production of cytokines at the target cells.

In the study, the researchers administered the mRNA cocktail into colon and melanoma tumors in 20 mice. They reported that treatment was able to halt tumor growth, leading to total regression in 17 of the mice. Even better, combining the mRNA mix with a checkpoint inhibitor increased the anti-tumor effects as well as regression speed.

Based on this data, BioNTech and co-authors Sanofi have joined forces to further develop the approach. A phase 1 basket trial in humans is to begin enrolling patients with solid tumors. A basket trial tests how well a new drug works in patients who have different types of cancer but that share the same mutation or biomarker. The trial will test the mRNA both solo and in combination with a PD-1 inhibitor launched by Sanofi and Regeneron last year.

The move from using mRNA in vaccines against COVID-19 to treatments for cancer is a major step, and there could be many other future uses for mRNA in the treatment of other diseases.

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