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Scientists say the way a COVID-19 vaccine stimulates the body’s immune system could be used in a potential cancer vaccine. Joan Slatkin/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
  • Scientists are exploring ways to use the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology deployed in the COVID-19 vaccines as a way to fight cancer.
  • Experts say mRNA can stimulate the body’s immune system to recognize cancer cells and attack them.
  • They note that there are many different types of cancer, so any vaccine would need to be versatile.

The messenger RNA (mRNA) technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines could also be used to tackle cancer, according to experts.

“Cancer cells make proteins that can be targeted by mRNA vaccines. Progress in this area has been reported in treating melanoma,” Dr. Jeffrey A. Metts, chief of staff at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Atlanta, told Healthline.

“However, the treatment of cancer is different than preventing cancer. We can look to the dramatic drop in cervical cancer to see what improved awareness, screening, and administration of the HPV vaccine has achieved in the last 10 years,” Metts said.

“The HPV vaccine has shown that we can prevent 80 to 90 percent of cervix cancers and that is an incredibly effective strategy related to cancer. But it doesn’t treat it,” he said.

Cancer vaccines, however, blur the lines between prevention and treatment.

A traditional inoculation, such as the COVID-19 vaccines, primes the body’s immune system to recognize and attack viral cells.

A cancer vaccine works similarly, teaching the body’s immune system to recognize cancer cells either to prevent cancer from returning or actively seeking and destroying tumors in the body as an immunotherapy.

One reason this works is because mRNA editing is such a flexible technology.

“mRNA can be encoded with any protein imaginable. We can deliver mRNA into tumor cells such that the tumor will express proteins that signal the immune system to attack the tumor cell as a foreign pathogen that needs to be removed,” said Jacob Becraft, PhD, co-founder and chief executive officer of Strand Therapeutics, a company developing mRNA therapeutics and synthetic biology.

“We can also deliver mRNA into immune cells, arming them with enhanced sensors for detecting tumors. This effectively teaches the immune system how to kill tumor cells,” Becraft told Healthline.

He added: “Existing therapies require us to create synthetic proteins in the lab that will kill the tumors or activate the immune system against them. With mRNA, we can encode any number of these proteins on the same molecule of mRNA, and cause the tumor cells to ‘create their own therapies’ directly inside of the tumor.”

One of the challenges of using mRNA to treat cancer, however, is that mRNA doesn’t last long in the body before deteriorating.

Developing technology to change this is the subject of a new study published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Nano Letters.

Chinese researchers have developed and tested a new hydrogel that contains and stabilizes mRNA, allowing for the slow release of both mRNA and an adjuvant (a compound that improves the immune response to a vaccine).

This would allow therapies to last over the course of 30 days.

In the study, mice with melanoma given the treatment saw both reductions in tumor size as well as no further metastasis in the lungs after treatment with this mRNA vaccine, the researchers reported.

If successful across further trials, this could be a promising development for treating cancers in humans.

Becraft’s company is working on a similar technology.

“Current technologies for mRNA-based cancer treatment in the clinic suffer from short half-lives of expression, only being able to make the tumor into mini ‘self-therapy factories’ for a day or two,” he said.

“Strand [Therapeutics] has developed specialized self-replicating mRNA technology that causes tumors to express these drugs for weeks, rather than days. This allows for better therapeutic efficacy as well as less injections for the patients and better patient quality of life,” Becraft said.

So, are we looking at a future where cancer is “cured” via mRNA vaccines, or is at least more treatable?

The answer is an optimistic “maybe.”

“It is early, but it’s considered a promising new drug development area. There are a number [of] cellular re-programming and protein replacement therapy that look really promising, but the latter is likely to proceed more rapidly as we are adept at measuring protein expression,” Anna Barker, PhD, the chief strategy officer at the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at the University of Southern California, told Healthline.

Metts concurred but urged caution.

“While mRNA vaccines use similar technology to today’s targeted cancer therapies like immunotherapy, cancer and infectious diseases are not synonymous,” Metts said.

“Cancer is complex, has our DNA, and constantly mutates. It is important to understand that there are a multitude of cancers and that no two cancers are exactly alike,” Metts said. “We must continue to monitor the results of ongoing and future laboratory and clinical research to understand more fully the promise of mRNA being used to treat or protect against cancer.”

mRNA therapies will likely include two vaccines. One would target certain cancer expressions while the second would be a personalized medicine that use samples of the person’s own cells to target therapies just at cancer cells.

“It is easy for people to hear simple terms like RNA, DNA, and vaccines, and think success in treating one group of diseases is comparable to taking that same technology and treating another group of diseases, which is problematic,” Metts said.

“We are in a place to look at the data, learn, and progress as a scientific and medical community. mRNA could unlock an entirely new line of vaccines against a variety of viruses and diseases,” he added.