Immunologist Özlem Türeci and oncologist Ugur Sahin are the scientists behind the covid-19 gene vaccine developed in a partnership between the American laboratory and BioNTech, a biotechnology company that the couple founded in 2008. That year, Sahin managed to stabilize the messenger RNA molecule (mRNA) so that it could be used in the development of treatments and vaccines against cancer recurrence.
“We have several lines of research for cancer vaccines based on mRNA. We do not know, however, when they will be available to everyone, but we hope that within just a few years, we will have cancer vaccines to offer, ”said Türeci.
According to the immunologist, this was the initial objective when she and her husband founded BioNTech and, thanks to the success of the vaccine against covid-19, there is now sufficient funding for this to happen (BioNTech also has vaccine research lines and mRNA-based treatments for rare and infectious diseases).
Inside and outside the tumor
Apart from its research on the use of mRNA for vaccines against viruses, oncology is still the strength of the company, which today has ten lines of research on vaccines and treatments for cancer, all using messenger RNA. Three of them are the most promising and are already in phase 1 of the clinical trials:
FixVac works with antigens common to several types of cancers. For this platform, they use “selected combinations of unmodified and pharmacologically optimized mRNA, encoding specific antigens shared by known types of cancer,” that is, the research looks for common denominators for certain types of tumors to create a vaccine that can be applied in pasta.
The second line of research by BioNTech, in partnership with Genentech, is the so-called specific immunotherapy for individualized neoantigens (iNeST) in which, after tumor tissue and blood, each patient’s tumor mRNA is sequenced to identify the mutations that the cells have suffered – these are called neoepitopes (an epitope is the smallest portion of the antigen that is recognized by a T-lymphocyte receptor).