mRNA vaccines came roaring onto the public stage in 2020. In the United States and Europe, two of the vaccines that are being used against the SARS-CoV-2 virus are mRNA vaccines. The scientific community has been talking about the potential of this technology against infectious diseases as well as cancer for several years, but no one thought that the first mRNA vaccines would make such a huge, and public, debut.
One big benefit of mRNA vaccines is the speed at which they can be developed. mRNA vaccines use messenger RNA particles to teach our cells to make a bit of protein, which then triggers our body’s immune response, and it is relatively easy to synthesize large amounts of mRNA in a laboratory. As promising as this sounds for infectious diseases, the application of mRNA vaccines for oncology might be even more exciting.
Are Personalized mRNA Vaccines the Future of Cancer Treatments?
Imagine a vaccine personalized such that it specifically targets the genetic mutations present in an individual’s tumors. This personalized mRNA vaccine could be used following surgery to program the immune system to search out and destroy any residual cancer cells, and thus prevent the cancer from recurring. This is the strategy being tested by a team of Colorectal Cancer experts at MD Anderson (1).
The standard treatment colorectal cancer is often surgery, but sometimes a few cancer cells remain in the body. These cells cancer cells release DNA into the bloodstream (often referred to as circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA), which can be detected from a blood sample. Detecting ctDNA in the blood can mean that there is an increase risk that the cancer will return.
By sequencing the tumor’s DNA after it is removed, the team can identify mutations that are specific to that tumor. If ctDNA is detected, this sequence information is used to develop a personalized mRNA vaccine. The idea is that these vaccines will program the body to clear any residual tumor cells.
mRNA Vaccines Offer Hope Against More than Just Infectious Diseases
Using mRNA vaccines to seek out and destroy residual cancer cells is a good example of the vision that science held all along for mRNA vaccines. Long before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the idea of how quickly a vaccine could be created was appealing for treating more than just infectious diseases. The promise of personalized medicine is tantalizing. The team at MD Anderson is currently working on a Phase II clinical trial, and many other researchers are investigating other applications of mRNA vaccine technology. mRNA vaccine technology may have gotten its first test because of a global pandemic, but it seems clear that the promise it offers stretches well beyond a single virus.
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- Carter, D. (2021) Can mRNA vaccines be use in cancer care? MD Anderson Cancerwise, January 25, 2021. Accessed April 22, 2021.