The mRNA technology of Covid vaccines is already being investigated in cancer

Covid mRNA vaccines are not the only ones using that platform: there are 15 approved drugs and another 30 in trials for different diseases, including cancer.

Basic science research has been essential for the development of the latest great advances in medicine, such as the application of mRNA or gene editing with CRISPR.

Whoever finds the record time (ten months since the identification of SARS-CoV-2) in the development of vaccines against Covid-19 with technology that uses messenger RNA (mRNA) is suspicious should take into account that this “new” technology has been researched for 30 years. The pandemic has catalyzed the application of mRNA for the first time in a human vaccine, however this success may open the door not only to other vaccines, but to different drugs, including cancer treatments.

The director of the Center for Molecular Biology Severo Ochoa, Lourdes Ruiz Deviatedhas reviewed those mRNA investigations prior to the discovery of the vaccines. “The Hungarian Scientist Katalin Karik in the 90s of the last century proposed mRNA as a therapeutic molecule, but she had great difficulty finding funding to investigate it. “Finally, the work of biochemistry, then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has served, decades later, for the success achieved by the German company BioNTech and the American company Moderna with vaccines. against Covid.

On the other hand, Pfizer had been researching mRNA-based vaccines for a long time, specifically since the 2008 influenza A epidemic. “Soon after, in 2013, faced with the avian flu epidemic, they were already able in just eight days to obtain the proof of concept, producing the RNA that synthesized the protein and that was going to serve to produce antibodies. Now is when they have been able to apply all that knowledge, “said Ruiz Desviat, during a meeting on the future of RNA applications, organized by the Ramn Areces Foundation and the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM), and moderated by Enrique Viguera Mnguez, Professor of Genetics at the University of Malaga.

With the mRNA-based therapeutic platform the pharmaceutical industry is already exploring the development of a universal vaccine against influenza, as well as immunizations against the AIDS virus (VIH), the cytomegalovirus, viruses she was and of Zika, and against malaria and the tuberculosis, to mention a few pathogens.

Cell Instructions

Messenger RNA contains the instructions to synthesize a protein so that if there is a problem with any protein in our body, it can deliver the new “recipe” to the cell. But It is not the only small molecule in the RNA family that harbors these therapeutic abilities.. “In recent years, there has been a great development of antisense oligonucleotides, interfering RNAs or aptamers to treat diseases of many different types: from the genetic, for which they were initially developed, to cancer and hyperlipidemia.”

In fact, the initial goal of Modern biotechnology was to harness the potential of mRNA modification to develop genetic treatments, and thus I put it in his name, an acronym that plays with the words modifiedRNA (ModeRNA).

Apart from the two RNA-based vaccines against Covid, there are already in use 15 approved drugs by the European and North American regulatory agencies and another 30 are in different stages of trials clinicians. “And in the future we will see many more”, Ruiz Desviat has highlighted.

For this scientist, the most spectacular example of the success of treatments using RNA is Spinraza, a drug to treat spinal muscular atrophy. “It is a lethal disease in children, who die within two years. With this drug not only mortality is prevented, but these children can develop practically normal motor function. The market for RNA-based therapies is growing dramatically.”

Personalized Cancer Vaccines

Another of the most promising fields for this technology platform is that of cancer treatment, where there are already clinical studies in early stages. Immunotherapy (by which the immune system itself is used to kill tumor cells) has established itself against various tumors. With mRNA-based vaccines the goal is to use these molecules to teaching immune cells to act against antigens specific tumors.

The strategy, as explained Mara de la Fuente Freire, from the Nano-Oncology Unit of the Santiago de Compostela Health Research Institute, can even be done in a personalized way, by means of massive sequencing techniques of a patient’s tumor tissue to determine specific antigens and thus be able to develop a specific vaccine.

Since “tumors are dynamic”, De la Fuente recalled, “it is important to study them in real time” to adapt immunotherapy to the moment in which the disease is present.


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