Scientists believe that the groundbreaking mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines could unlock treatments for deadly diseases, including cancer and HIV.
The COVID vaccine was discovered by hacking the body’s genetic blueprints, something that researchers believe can be used to further develop vaccines for cancer and HIV.
Traditional vaccines use a virus to teach the immune system to recognize the invader and destroy it.
The multiple types of COVID-19 vaccines being used in different countries all train the body to recognize the new coronavirus, mostly the spike protein that coats it.
Scientists believe that the groundbreaking mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines (file image) could unlock treatments for deadly diseases, including cancer and HIV
But they require different technologies, raw materials, equipment and expertise to do so.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines authorized in the US are made by putting a piece of genetic code called mRNA — the instructions for that spike protein — inside a little ball of fat.
Making small amounts of mRNA in a research lab is easy but ‘prior to this, nobody made a billion doses or 100 million or even a million doses of mRNA,’ said Dr Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, who helped pioneer mRNA technology.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are made with a cold virus that sneaks the spike protein gene into the body.
It’s a very different form of manufacturing: living cells in giant bioreactors grow that cold virus, which is extracted and purified.
According to Inverse, the COVID vaccines are the first mRNA vaccines to be approved for use.
For more than 25 years, scientists have been studying this vaccine approach.
And now, because the mRNA vaccines are here, scientists are looking at the potential to use the technology to create other breakthrough therapies for diseases like cancer HIV, Parkinson’s disease, and others, by preventing them.
Scientists at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are also studying mRNA as a cancer treatment. A woman is seen getting a COVID vaccine in California
As BioNTech’s profile has grown during the pandemic, so has its value, providing funds the company can use to pursue its original goal of developing a new tool against cancer.
Ozlem Tureci, who co-founded the German company BioNTech with her husband, said last month: ‘We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA.’
Asked when such a therapy might be available, Tureci said ‘that’s very difficult to predict in innovative development’.
‘But we expect that within only a couple of years, we will also have our vaccines (against) cancer at a place where we can offer them to people.’
According to Inverse, scientists at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are also studying mRNA as a cancer treatment.
Van Karlyle Morris, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the university, told the news site that he is leading a clinical trial to test mRNA vaccines as ‘personalized therapies for patients who have been treated for cancer, with the goal of further reducing the risk of the cancer coming back’.
Morris said that the study’s goal is to ‘demonstrate that such a vaccine would train the immune system to recognize pieces of mutated proteins which are found in any residual tumor cells — but not in other, unaffected cells in the body — after surgery and then to attack and kill those remaining areas of cancer’.
In California, scientist at Scripps University are looking at HIV as a candidate for an mRNA vaccine.
According to a press statement from the university, William Schief, a professor and immunologist at Scripps Research, his team’s study ‘demonstrates proof of principle for a new vaccine concept for HIV, a concept that could be applied to other pathogens, as well’.
‘With our many collaborators on the study team, we showed that vaccines can be designed to stimulate rare immune cells with specific properties, and this targeted stimulation can be very efficient in humans. We believe this approach will be key to making an HIV vaccine and possibly important for making vaccines against other pathogens,’ Schief said.
Schief’s team has so far developed a preliminary vaccine that shows promise for preventing infection with the HIV virus using the same technology as the Moderna vaccine.