Pioneers of the research that led to one of the first COVID-19 vaccines say breakthroughs made in their studies could point the way toward developing a potential vaccine against cancer before the end of the decade.
In a BBC interview, husband and wife team Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, co-founders of BioNTech, the German company that teamed up with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to create one of the game-changing vaccines, said technology they had developed could be repurposed to help the immune system respond to cancer cells.
The mRNA COVID-19 vaccine causes cells to create spike proteins, which warn the body's immune system about things to look out for and to attack. It is hoped that this could be reworked using proteins found in cancer tumor cells, causing a similar bodily defensive action.
BioNTech was founded in 2008 specifically to work on cancer treatments. "From the very beginning, our focus has always been on exploiting the full potential of the body's immune system to successfully help address cancer and infectious diseases," says the company website.
The pandemic diverted its efforts, but now the focus has shifted away from it, some of those earlier cancer vaccine developments have reached the clinical trial stage.
"As scientists we are always hesitant to say we will have a cure for cancer," said Tureci. "We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them … this will definitely accelerate also our cancer vaccine."
Luke O'Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin, told Irish state broadcaster RTE that such a breakthrough would be "the Holy Grail" of cancer research.
"There's at least 10 clinical trials running at the moment using RNA vaccines on cancer, and they're obviously early stage trials. But it seems like pancreatic, melanoma, head and neck cancer, the really difficult ones, are the ones they're going after first and the signs are they are seeing some traction here," he said. "I guess the way to put it is that optimism has never been higher."
He added that "the dream" was for a way to be found to enable the body to recognize a cancer tumor as a foreign element, in the same way it had done with COVID-19, and to respond accordingly, so that the immune system could be "trained" to "hunt down "the rogue presence.
"You're training the immune system like a smart bomb, in a way, to see those differences and kill that tumor cell," he continued.
What made the potential breakthrough even more exciting, he said, was that any treatment could be personalized to work on an individual cancer patient's specific circumstances.
"You can take someone who's got cancer, take their own tumor and make an RNA vaccine out of that and soup up their own immune system specifically against their own tumor. That's a really wonderful thing to see," he added.