The cancer vaccine race is on

THE rare good news from Covid is that the pandemic has spawned new cancer vaccine research and trials.

Prospects of success appear to be good. BioNTech co-founders Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, who lead the way with messenger RNA (mRNA) Covid vaccines, predict that by 2030, similar immunisations will be anti-cancer treatments. That would be a boon to the world, as the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some 10 million people die of cancer each year, second only to cardiac disease.

When the pandemic engulfed the world, BioNTech partnered with Pfizer to apply Tureci and Sahin’s mRNA know-how, and create a Covid vaccine. Success against the Covid pandemic boosted the company’s finances to research and develop mRNA and other technologies to counter cancer and diseases such as tuberculosis and shingles. Moderna, the US biotech company, which also produces Covid vaccines, is applying similar techniques to beat cancer.

BioNTech’s mRNA technology cancer vaccine candidates are already in trials. They target advanced melanoma, prostate, lung, ovarian, colorectal (colon), head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (skin) cancers, as well as unspecified tumours. BioNTech’s cash and security investments of 12.8 billion euros (S$18.6 billion) at the end of March this year are available for its own trials and research, collaborative deals and potential acquisitions of competitors, said Sahin, CEO of the firm, in a first-quarter results presentation on Monday (May 8).

For example, the company recently acquired a manufacturing facility in Singapore from Novartis, the pharmaceutical company. The unit, which should be fully operational by the end of this year, will concentrate on cancer vaccines alongside new Covid variants, a BioNTech spokesperson said. She added that the Singapore site is expected to have an annual production capacity of up to several hundred million doses of mRNA-based vaccines by 2024, and will supply other Asian nations except China.

Major trial to take place in UK

Enthusiastic about the chances of cancer vaccination success, the UK National Health Service (NHS) has agreed to a partnership with BioNTech. Some 10,000 patients will be fast-tracked into clinical trials of mRNA immunotherapies to treat various cancers. The project, dubbed the Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad and run by the NHS and Genomics England, a science data firm, will begin recruiting patients in September this year.

Sahin and Tureci have a lengthy history in their efforts to defeat cancer. In 2008, the two professors co-founded Biopharmaceutical New Technologies, now better known as BioNTech, an immunotherapy company pioneering novel therapies for cancer.

“Cancer is a complex combination of diseases with many possible causes,” said Tureci in BioNTech’s latest annual report. “Cancer uses many mechanisms to undermine the body’s immune system… BioNTech’s approach is to establish a diverse toolkit of different technologies, modalities and modes of action.”

She added that the company’s anti-cancer product pipeline includes mRNA vaccines, T-cell therapies, antibodies and other therapeutics.

cheap personalised vaccine that prompts patients’ immune systems to defeat cancer, Tureci said.


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Instructing the immune system to eliminate cancer cells

In a lecture at Cambridge University’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) last July, Sahin and Tureci explained that the purpose of the vaccine is to instruct the patient’s immune system to recognise and eliminate cancer cells. The lecture, in honour of LMB Nobel Laureate Cesar Milstein, discussed the “scientific groundwork, key discoveries, inventions, and technological solutions that have paved the development and clinical application of highly potent, personalised mRNA cancer vaccines”.

“This novel approach allows a treatment to be individually tailored to the complex genetic profile of a patient’s tumour,” Sahin said.

“The concept is to use specific molecular features in individual cancers of patients to encode them into the mRNA vaccines and to train the immune system to attack,” Tureci said. “It’s like putting up a warning sign, alerting the body to be on the lookout and fight. But since cancer is a complex disease, patients may need several doses to keep the immune system on guard.”

“Cancer vaccines are a type of immunotherapy that treats cancer by strengthening the body’s natural defences against the cancer,” the US’ National Cancer Institute noted. “They work against cancer cells.”

Basis of the vaccine therapy

Cancer cells contain substances, called tumour-associated antigens, that are either not present or are at low levels in normal cells, the Institute said. Treatment vaccines can help the immune system learn to recognise and react to these antigens and destroy cancer cells that contain them.

Opportunities Galore

The development of cancer vaccines will lead to huge opportunities for diagnostic, laboratory and medtech firms in the US, Europe, Singapore and elsewhere.

“You can imagine that this route will lead to an explosion in diagnostics,” opined Steve Powell, a radiologist and principal consultant at SKP Advisory Services, which helps establish British diagnostic and imaging centres.

Hopefully, trials will open the way to beat the disease. The WHO fears that the cancer death count could rise to around 17 million by the end of the decade. “The greatest burden is on low-income and middle-income countries where more than two-thirds of global cancer cases and deaths occur,” the agency said.

© Neil Behrmann.(  This article was first published in The Business Times Singapore . For other Asian and global articles try

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