How mRNA vaccines help fight cancer tumors

Thanks to researchers in different fields who put in nearly two decades of past work on mRNA vaccine technology, people around the world are being immunized today from COVID-19—and hopefully leading us out of this pandemic. Now, because of the increased focus on this versatile technology and that foundation of research, mRNA vaccines for other diseases have an even greater chance of making it to patients.

gloved hand holding covid vacciine
Image: Dan Burke

“The whole platform is very, very flexible,” says Norbert Pardi, a research assistant professor of infectious diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine. “You can use mRNA vaccines for many things.”

That includes cancer—which is just one of several areas outside of infectious diseases that researchers at Penn have been investigating.

Here’s a breakdown of how an mRNA-based vaccine could work to fight tumors, the challenges that need to be overcome, the technology’s roots in oncology, and where it’s headed.

The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 protect people from the virus. They’re prophylactic. But a cancer mRNA vaccine is an intervention (a treatment) given to patients with the hope that their immune systems would be activated in a way that would attack tumor cells.

Through their research, Pardi and others, including researchers whose work led to the development of the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, Drew Weissman, a professor of infectious diseases in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct associate professor at Penn and a senior vice president at BioNTech, found that mRNA vaccines can not only prompt strong antibody responses to fight off invaders, like COVID-19, but also potent cytotoxic T cell responses.

That’s important because these T cells can kill cancer cells. They just need to be altered or motivated to do it. Think immunotherapy, like checkpoint inhibitors or chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy that engineers a patient’s own T cells to find and destroy cancer cells.

“A successful therapeutic cancer vaccine should induce strong T cell responses, particularly with CD8+ T cells, which have a known capacity to kill malignant cells,” says Pardi, who is currently leading studies to better understand mRNA vaccines to treat cancers, along with other diseases. Pardi was also a postdoctoral researcher in Weissman’s lab and a frequent collaborator with him and Karikó. “Therapeutic cancer vaccines would be given to cancer patients with the hope that those vaccine-induced cytotoxic T cells would clear tumor cells.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.