Sixteen patients of common pancreatic cancer form pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) participated in the 1-st phase clinical trial. They were given eight doses of a personalized vaccine, which was made using genetic codes taken from their tumors.
The patients also had their tumors removed, underwent chemotherapy, and took a drug called atezolizumab. The drug blocks the signal sent by some cancer cells telling the immune system not to attack them.
Eighteen months after receiving the vaccine, cancer did not return in eight patients.
The mRNA technology delivers the genetic code to the patient's cells and instructs them to produce proteins identical to those created by cancer cells. Producing these proteins boosts the immune system to target tumors. The same technology is applied in "Pfizer" COVID-19 vaccine, which was also developed by a German company BioNTech in 2020.
Conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy do not specifically target tumor cells and also damage the normal dividing cells.
In the United States, there are 28,000 to 30,300 newly diagnosed cases of pancreatic cancer a year, with 90 percent of patients dying within two years after diagnosis. Because clinical symptoms develop late, 80 percent of pancreatic cancers are metastatic at the time of diagnosis.
"With only under 5 percent of patients responding to current treatment options, PDAC is one of the highest unmet medical need cancers. We are committed to take up this challenge by leveraging our long-standing research in cancer vaccinology and are trying to break new ground in the treatment of such hard-to-treat tumors," said Prof. Özlem Türeci, M.D., Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer at BioNTech.
Researchers have already been looking for ways to apply mRNA technology in fighting cancer, including metastatic melanoma. Unlike vaccines against infectious diseases, cancer vaccines are focused on treating the disease rather than on its prevention. To date, no vaccine against cancer has been approved.