The United Kingdom government has announced its plan to accelerate research into mRNA cancer vaccines in an agreement signed with pharmaceutical company BioNTech.

Key points:

After the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, BioNTech will trial a cancer treatment in Britain using the same mRNA technology.

By the end of 2030, up to 10,000 people will receive the immunotherapy that will be tailored to individual tumours, either in trials or as an approved treatment.

The German pharmaceutical company said the project was focused on “cancer immunotherapies, infectious disease vaccines and expansion of BioNTech’s footprint in the UK”.

“Our goal is to accelerate the development of immunotherapies and vaccines using technologies we have been researching for [more than] 20 years,” BioNTech co-founder and chief executive Ugur Sahin said in a statement.

BioNTech worked with Pfizer to develop the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine that was approved in late 2020.

The UK “successfully delivered Covid-19 vaccines so quickly”, which Mr Sahin said demonstrated “that drug development can be accelerated without cutting corners if everyone works seamlessly together towards the same goal”.

Campaigners have called on the government to ensure any cancer vaccine that comes out of these trials must be set at a price that makes it accessible for all.

Details of the agreement between the government and BioNtech have not been disclosed.

The next steps will be the selection of candidates and trial sites, with the aim of being ready to enrol the first cancer patient in the second half of 2023, the company said.

BioNTech will also open a new research and development centre with about 70 staff in Cambridge, as well as setting up a regional headquarters in London.

mRNA technology ‘powerful treatment options for cancer’

Scientists say mRNA vaccines could be a game-changer against many diseases because they provoke an immune response by delivering genetic molecules containing the code for key parts of a pathogen into human cells.

They also take less time to develop than traditional vaccines.

Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, Iain Foulkes, told the ABC that “mRNA vaccines are one of the most exciting research developments to come out of the pandemic”.

“And there are strong hints that they could become powerful treatment options for cancer.

“Getting there will require lots more research, which is why this news is so exciting … The UK has a great opportunity to lead in this field,” Dr Foulkes said.

Dr Foulkes warned that such ambitions would not become a reality without a strong UK clinical research environment and better support of health staff.

“And [we need to] ensure such partnerships benefit patients. The government must address the underlying issues currently disrupting trials. For instance, chronic workforce shortages and cancer backlogs leftover from the pandemic are leaving NHS staff with even less time to support trials.

“If this pattern continues, it will mean slower progress towards new treatments.”

Cancer vaccines at ‘tipping point’

Experts say personalised vaccines are among several promising cancer vaccine ideas in the works after many failures in the field.

“In general, I think cancer vaccines are kind of at a tipping point, and there are going to probably be a lot of vaccines coming down the pipeline in the next five years,” the director of UW Medicine Cancer Vaccine Institute in Seattle, Mary Lenora Disis, said.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the speed, ease and safety of mRNA vaccines, they came out of years of cancer vaccine research, Dr Disis said.


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