Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci are a couple who co-founded the German biotech company BioNTech in 2008, “researching a new technology containing messenger RNA for cancer treatment.” They are working with Pfizer to use the same approach for their Covid vaccine, “now doctors hope it could lead to new treatments for melanoma, bowel cancer and other types of tumors.”
BioNTech is conducting several trials, including one in which patients are given a personalized vaccine to prompt their immune system to attack the disease. The mRNA technology used works by sending an instruction or blueprint to cells to produce an antigen or protein. In the case of Covid, this antigen is part of the spike protein of the virus. In cancer, it will be a marker on the surface of tumor cells. This teaches the immune system to recognize and target the affected cells for destruction.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, Professor Türeci said: “mRNA acts as a blueprint and allows you to tell the body to produce the drug or the vaccine… and when you use mRNA as a vaccine, the mRNA is a blueprint for the ‘wanted poster’ of the enemy – in this case cancer antigens which distinguish cancer cells from normal cells.”
Harnessing the power of mRNA to produce vaccines has not been proven before Covid. But the success of mRNA-based vaccines during the pandemic has encouraged scientists working with this technology in the field of oncology.
The Guardian notes that the couple said cancer vaccines could be available as early as 2030, although Özlem Türeci warns: “As scientists, we are always hesitant to say we will have a cure for cancer. We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them.”
BioNTech was working on mRNA-based cancer vaccines before the pandemic began, but in the face of the global emergency, the company refocused on the production of Covid vaccines. The company currently has several cancer vaccines in clinical trials.