Personalised cancer vaccines 'saving lives in five years' says Moderna

‘It’s an adaptation of the Covid jab’: Personalised cancer vaccines ‘will be saving lives in five years’, claims US firm Moderna

  • The Moderna mRNA Covid jab had compressed many years of work
  • Others against heart disease and auto-immune illnesses are also within reach

Personalised cancer vaccines will be available in as little as five years, the head of a company that produced a successful Covid jab is predicting.

Dr Paul Burton, chief medical officer of US firm Moderna, said producing their mRNA Covid jab had compressed many years of work – massively accelerating development in the area.

Besides bespoke cancer vaccines, he said others to protect against or treat ‘all sorts of diseases’ including heart disease and auto-immune illnesses were now within reach.

Speaking to The Guardian, Dr Burton said Moderna was developing cancer vaccines to combat different types of tumours: ‘We will have that vaccine and it will be highly effective, and it will save many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.’

He added: ‘I think we will be able to offer personalised cancer vaccines against multiple different tumour types.’

Personalised cancer vaccines will be available in as little as five years, the head of a company that produced a successful Covid jab is predicting

While vaccines are most frequently thought of as preventative measure – typically by stopping an individual contracting an infection – within the field of cancer, they are now being developed principally as a form of treatment.

The idea is first to take a sample of a patient’s tumour and genetically analyse it to identify which mutations are responsible for its growth.

Then, a tailor-made molecule of mRNA – a genetic blueprint that instructs cells to make proteins – is produced. This tells cells to make an ‘antigen’ related to that cancer – a kind of ‘flag’ that gives a cancer cell away.

Large numbers of these molecules are then injected into the patient, prompting cells to make the ‘flags’. After the patient’s cells make these, so the theory goes, their immune system is able to recognise them – and the cancerous cells they represent – as dangerous invaders. As a result these cells are targeted for destruction, while healthy cells are left unharmed.

It is an adaptation of the same process used to produce mRNA vaccines against Covid – only rather than teaching the immune system to recognise the virus as an alien invader, these vaccines would teach the recipients to recognise their particular cancer as the outsider.

Dr Burton said they had started to learn it was ‘absolutely not the case’ that mRNA technology could be applied only to fight Covid.

‘It can be applied to all sorts of disease areas,’ he said, adding that Moderna was investigating mRNA to combat ‘cancer, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, rare disease’.

A sign marks the headquarters of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine maker Moderna in Cambridge, Massachusetts

‘We have studies in all of those areas and they have all shown tremendous promise,’ Dr Burton said.

Human trials of such cancer vaccines are still a way off – although rival BioNTech, which created the blueprint for Pfizer’s Covid jab – announced last year it had entered into an agreement with the NHS to provide up to 10,000 patients with personalised mRNA cancer treatments by 2030.

If personalised cancer vaccines do become available, they are also likely to be expensive. The nearest comparative technology currently on the market is a type of treatment called CAR-T therapy, for certain types of leukaemia and lymphoma.

CAR-T therapies typically cost a six-figure sum per patient.

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