mRNA Vaccines Could Cure Cancer. Vaccines are an integral component of… | by Shreya JS | Jan, 2024

Vaccines are an integral component of disease prevention, treatment and control in modern public health. They have been responsible for ending epidemics, eradicating deadly viruses, and saving millions — maybe billions — of lives.

This begs the question: Why don’t we use vaccines to cure cancer, one of the most common genetic diseases, and one with an alarmingly high mortality rate? In 2024, it is predicted that 611,720 people will die from cancer in the U.S. alone. Why then don’t we use vaccine technologies to shrink this statistic?

At first, the idea might seem counterintuitive. In high school biology classes, we’re taught that vaccines are only intended as preventative measures for viral pathogens.

However, with recent breakthroughs in mRNA vaccine technology, this isn’t the case anymore. We can now create personalized vaccines to treat several different types of cancer.

This begs the question: how do these personalized mRNA cancer vaccines that I am talking about work?

Let’s dive in…

mRNA Vaccines

Traditionally, vaccines have been created with dead or weakened versions of the pathogen they deal with. These stimulate the immune system and trigger an immune response, “teaching” the body how to deal with and destroy the disease. The vaccinated body should now be able to defend itself if it is ever infected with the active version of this pathogen.

Recently, a new type of vaccine has entered mainstream public health. It is known as the mRNA vaccine. Like a traditional vaccine, it is used primarily to prevent against viral infections. Instead of injecting an entire dead or weakened virus into the bloodstream, mRNA vaccines insert only that part of the mRNA (messenger RNA) of the virus that is responsible for creating the spike protein of that virus. The spike protein, being a major component of the virus, naturally draws the attention of the immune system.

Certain cells (especially dendritic immune cells) will take in this mRNA (that creates the spike protein), which will then use the machinery of this cell to create a copy of the spike protein. The presence of this foreign, unknown, protein will act as an antigen and trigger the immune response, mobilizing important immune cells such as memory B. helper T, and cytotoxic T cells. The copy of the spike protein that has been created will be destroyed, but the immune system will keep a copy of the antigen (in this case, a piece of the spike protein) for future reference. This “memory” will help the immune system destroy the real pathogen faster if infection occurs. Think about vaccination as a practice run for the immune system; it helps train the body in dealing with the real thing.

Usually, mRNA vaccines are used as preventative measures to stop someone from having a severe response to a viral infection (think COVID-19 vaccines). However, they can also be used to aid the immune system in ending an existing infection.

Currently, mRNA technology-based vaccines are being tested as a potential cure for a completely different category of disease — cancer.

mRNA Vaccines for Cancer

Cancer is, by definition, not a pathogen-induced disease. It is an autoimmune disease caused by harmful genetic mutations that lead to the creation of mutant cells in a certain part of the body that to preform uncontrollable mitosis (cell division). These cells create tumors, which interfere with the normal functioning of the body’s systems. If these cells spread to other parts of the body outside of where they originated, the condition is known as metastatic cancer. Therefore, in order to completely cure cancer, a successful treatment must accomplish the following:

a) Kill all existing cancer cells

b) Prevent new cancer cells from forming

The first objective can easily be accomplished to some degree using existing therapies. The second, though, is almost impossible to achieve for more than a few years at a time (if the cancer is mild).

This is what sets mRNA cancer vaccines apart from other methods of treatment. They help train the immune system to constantly attack and destroy any cancerous cells that it finds. In addition, it entertains a startlingly low probability of the immune system making mistakes and attacking normal, functioning cells. This is because the vaccine is tailored for each individual patient using tissue samples from their own tumors. In other words, it is personalized.

How do mRNA vaccines treat cancer in patients with already existing tumors in all stages?

First, cell samples are collected from the tumors of a patient receiving the treatment. The mRNA of the patient’s cancer cells is used to create a personalized mRNA vaccine for them. This process usually takes between 1–2 months.

After the cancerous cell’s mRNA, encased in a sphere of lipid nanoparticles, enters the body through the vaccine, it follows basically the same process as viral mRNA in a regular mRNA vaccine. Once accepted by a cell, this mRNA instructs the cell’s machinery to create neoantigens — the malfunctioning proteins found in cancer cells. Like the spike protein of a virus, the neoantigens activate an immune response. The proteins are soon destroyed, but the immune system remembers them and attacks other cancer cells in the body. This kills all existing cancer. The immunity that the body now has will prevent a rebound of the cancer in the future — whether this is in a few months, years, or decades.

If all goes as intended, the cancer will be completely eradicated.

Credits: mRNA lipid nanoparticle structure, MDPI: Nanomaterial Delivery Systems for mRNA Vaccines, Accessed 26 January 2024

What cancers do mRNA Vaccines work for?

Most mRNA cancer vaccines that are currently being researched are still in trial phases. They are far from omnipotent, and the many trials they have gone through have had mixed results. However, things look promising for patients with cetainr types of cancer, including:

– Pancreatic cancer

– Colerectal cancer

– Oral cancer

– Melanoma

– Lung cancer

– Brain cancer

– Breast cancer

– Head cancer

– Neck cancer

Additionally, these vaccines may be crucial in treating most metastatic cancers.

mRNA vaccines are a powerhouse of largely untapped potential in the field of cancer treatment. In less than a decade, they could be a mainstream cure used to kill cancer and save thousands of lives.

The War on Cancer is far from over.

But personalized mRNA cancer vaccines could turn the tide.

Antigen: A part of a pathogen that triggers an immune response

Genetic Disease: A disease that is caused by harmful mutations within the genome.

Lipid Nanoparticle: A nanoparticle composed of lipids (fats).

Metastatic Cancer: A cancer that spreads to parts of the body other than where it originated.

mRNA: Messenger RNA, a type of single-stranded RNA that is involved in protein synthesis.

Neoantigen: A malfunctioning protein generated by tumor cells because of genomic mutations that cause cancer.

Pathogen: An organism that can cause disease. However, viruses are considered pathogens, despite the fact that they are not living organisms.

Tumor: A mass of tissue that forms when cancerous cells group together.

Winstead, E. (2022). Can mRNA Vaccines Help Treat Cancer? National Cancer Institute.

Reynolds, S. (2023). An mRNA Vaccine to treat pancreatic cancer. NIH Research Matters.

Cleveland Clinic. Metastatis (Metastatic Cancer).

ASCO Post Staff. (2023) Personalized mRNA Vaccines May Transform the Treatment of Melanoma. ASCO Post.

Ni, L. (2023). Advances in mRNA-Based Cancer Vaccines. National Library of Medicine.

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