mRNA cancer treatment shrinks tumors in mice

The tech used to prevent COVID-19 could help us beat cancer.

An mRNA cancer treatment already in human trials has proven incredibly effective in mice, shrinking tumors in 85% of the rodents treated and stopping their growth in 100%.

The challenge: Our bodies naturally produce small proteins called ​​cytokines. Some cytokines can help our immune systems fight cancer, so researchers have started making those proteins in the lab and then administering them to cancer patients.

The problem with this is that the effect of the cytokines wears off quickly, so they must be readministered frequently, increasing a patient’s chances of experiencing some of their toxic side effects.

The therapy halted the growth of the tumors in all of the mice.

The background: mRNA is a type of molecule we can use to deliver instructions to cells — in the groundbreaking mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, the molecules instruct our cells to make harmless bits of the coronavirus, which teach the immune system to stop the real thing.

Researchers have been exploring the use of mRNA to fight diseases for decades, and prior to the pandemic, BioNTech (which designed Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine) was exploring the potential of an mRNA cancer treatment.

An mRNA cancer treatment: BioNTech is currently developing about a dozen different mRNA cancer therapies, including one called “SAR441000,” which contains instructions to make four types of cancer-fighting cytokines.

The phase 1 trial had enrolled about 230 patients with skin cancer and solid tumors.

For a new study, researchers injected the mRNA cancer treatment into colon and melanoma tumors of 20 mice.

The therapy halted the growth of the tumors in all of the mice and shrank the tumors in 17 of the rodents. It did this without causing any observable side effects — a big issue with cancer treatments — and without producing the cytokines in healthy tissues.

The next steps: A therapy working in mice doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work in humans — but it’s a good start. BioNTech is already in the process of finding out whether its mRNA cancer treatment will translate to people.

In 2019, the company launched a phase 1 trial of SAR441000, enrolling about 230 patients with skin cancer and solid tumors. Early results suggest the treatment is well-tolerated, and BioNTech expects to wrap up that study in early 2024.

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