The two vaccine candidates produced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are unlike any other vaccine that’s come before. Should they achieve commercial success, it could usher in a new era of medical science — not just for vaccines, but for cancer treatments, blood disorders, and gene therapy.
The two new vaccines are the first ever to use mRNA, which stands for “messenger RNA,” to generate immunity.
An up-and-coming strategy for fighting cancer is a so-called “cancer vaccine,” which uses immune cells called dendritic cells (DCs). DCs perform surveillance for the immune system. When they detect something that shouldn’t be there, whether it’s a virus, a bacteria, or even a cancer cell, the DCs chew it up, break it into its component molecules, and then show those foreign molecules to the immune cells that make antibodies.
Using mRNA to deliver the tumor antigen information to the DCs could provide a way to make this process easier, cheaper, and safer. BioNTech is currently conducting clinical trials on cancer vaccines for triple-negative breast cancer, metastatic melanoma, and HPV-positive head and neck cancers. Called FixVac, the vaccines include multiple tumor antigens that are frequently found across different patients.