The world could be only a few years away from a cancer vaccine, according to the couple behind the Pfizer/BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine.
"We feel that a cure for cancer or to changing cancer patients' lives is in our grasp," professor Ozlem Tureci told BBC News in an interview over the weekend. Her husband, professor Ugur Sahin, with whom she cofounded the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, said he thought cancer vaccines could be widely available "before 2030."
The husband-and-wife duo founded BioNTech in 2008 originally to develop and produce treatments for individualized cancer immunotherapy, using mRNA technology. But when the pandemic hit, they adapted this technology to create one of the first and most effective COVID-19 vaccines.
Scientists have been working on a cancer vaccine for decades. One approach is to teach the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells -- ideally preventing cancer from growing in the first place. Further along are other types of vaccines designed to treat people who already have cancer, including one FDA-approved cancer vaccine for people with advanced prostate cancer.
"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," the company's website says.
In this recent interview, the two professors explained that their experience of developing the COVID vaccine could help accelerate their work on a cancer vaccine as it launched the mRNA technology into the mainstream.
"What we have developed over decades for cancer vaccine development has been the tailwind for developing the COVID-19 vaccine, and now the Covid-19 vaccine and our experience in developing it gives back to our cancer work," Tureci said, explaining that "mRNA acts as a blueprint and allows you to tell the body to produce the drug or the vaccine ... and when you use mRNA as a vaccine, the mRNA is a blueprint for the 'wanted poster' of the enemy -- in this case, cancer antigens which distinguish cancer cells from normal cells."
"The development of several COVID vaccines in record time showed the possibilities of mRNA vaccine technology, which could one day become an effective treatment to help beat cancer," Dr. Sam Godfrey, research information lead at Cancer Research U.K., said.
"Just as science was our route out of the pandemic, science is our route to beating cancer. We're optimistic that, in the future, we will see mRNA technology and other exciting vaccine approaches giving doctors more treatment options to help beat cancer," Godfrey added.
Many other pharmaceutical companies, including vaccine-maker Moderna, are also working on mRNA vaccines to target specific cancers.
"Using vaccines to treat cancer is an exciting emerging field," Godfrey said. "We've already partnered with Vaccitech to trial one of the world's first therapeutic vaccines for lung cancer, and we are funding cutting-edge research learning how virus and vaccine technology might activate the immune system against cancer."
This approach is not without roadblocks. For example, the BioNTech vaccine needs to be custom-designed for each person. However, a preliminary study in pancreatic cancer suggested the vaccine might help delay cancer reoccurrence, though more research is needed.
"Every step, every patient we treat in our cancer trials helps us to find out more about what we are against and how to address that," Tureci said, before adding a note of caution: "We are always hesitant to say we will have a cure for cancer. We have a number of breakthroughs and we will continue to work on them."