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Explained: Moderna's Cancer And Heart Vaccines Could Be Made By 2030, What's Science Behind Them?

Vaccine-maker Moderna said that mRNA vaccines could be available for 'all sorts of disease areas' in five years. Other companies like Pfizer and BioNTech are also working on cancer vaccines.

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Moderna says mRNA vaccines for cancer and other diseases could be developed by 2030 (Representative Photo)
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Leading mRNA vaccine-maker Moderna has said that vaccines for cancer and heart diseases could be developed by 2030. 

Moderna has also said that personalised vaccines could also emerge, which mean that a vaccine would be composed according to a person's disease situation.

Vaccines train the immune system to identify and remove disease cells from the body. While there are different kinds of vaccines, Moderna works on mRNA vaccines. Notably, two of the most successful Coviv-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

It's not that vaccines don't currently exist for cancer. However, most cancer vaccines only treat cervical or prostrate cancers. 

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Here we explain what the Moderna has said, how its vaccines would work, and how things stand regarding cancers and vaccinations. 

What did Moderna say?

Moderna Chief Medical Officer Dr Paul Burton has said that Covid-19 vaccine accelerated the development of such vaccines as well. 

The cancer and heart diseases vaccines will also work on the underlying mRNA science that drives Moderna's Covid-19 vaccines. Unprecedented financial and regulatory support was provided to vaccine-makers to develop Covid-19 vaccines, which meant that vaccines were produced in record times.

The Guardian reported some researchers as saying that 15 years' worth of progress has been "unspooled" in 12-18 months because of the success of Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer also spoke on similar lines.

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A spokesperson told Guardian, "The learnings from the Covid-19 vaccine development process have informed our overall approach to mRNA research and development, and how Pfizer conducts R&D (research and development) more broadly. We gained a decade’s worth of scientific knowledge in just one year."

Burton told Guardian that mRNA vaccines could be available for "all sorts of disease areas" in five years.

He said, "We will have that vaccine and it will be highly effective, and it will save many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. I think we will be able to offer personalised cancer vaccines against multiple different tumour types to people around the world."

Burton further said that there could also be single vaccines that could work on multiple respiratory infections, such as a single vaccine for flu, Covid-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

He said, "I think we will have mRNA-based therapies for rare diseases that were previously undruggable, and I think that 10 years from now, we will be approaching a world where you truly can identify the genetic cause of a disease and, with relative simplicity, go and edit that out and repair it using mRNA-based technology."

How Moderna mRNA vaccines will work?

All vaccines work by training the immune system to target disease cells inside the body. The problem with cancer is that disease cells are very similar to healthy cells which makes it tough for the system to identify which cells to target. 

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"In the case of cancer, however, the situation is more complicated for several reasons (more below), which has made it more difficult to develop vaccines to prevent or treat cancer. In particular, unlike bacteria and viruses, which appear foreign to our immune system, cancer cells more closely resemble our normal, healthy cells. Furthermore, each individual’s tumor is in some sense unique and has its own distinguishing antigens," says New York's Cancer Research Institute (CRI).

The focus of Moderna's mRNA vaccines is to make personalised vaccine as cancer tumours are often unique to a person. 

First, a biopsy of a person would be taken to understand the nature of their cancer cells. The biopsy would be used to understand cancer growth and how to approach these cells. The Guardian explains:

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  1. An algorithm identifies which mutations are driving the cancer’s growth and are likely to trigger the immune system
  2. A molecule of messenger RNA (mRNA) is created containing instructions for making antigens that will cause an immune response
  3. Once injected, the mRNA is translated into protein pieces identical to those found on tumour cells. Immune cells encounter these and destroy cancer cells carrying the same proteins

Moderna CMO Burton told Guardian that such an approach would have applications beyond cancer too, such as in auto-immune diseases.

He said, "I think what we have learned in recent months is that if you ever thought that mRNA was just for infectious diseases, or just for Covid, the evidence now is that that’s absolutely not the case.

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"It can be applied to all sorts of disease areas; we are in cancer, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, rare disease. We have studies in all of those areas and they have all shown tremendous promise."

Other companies on cancer vaccines

While Moderna believes in a very promising path ahead, it's not the only company engaged in developing cancer vaccines. Pfizer and BioNTech are also working on cancer vaccines, which they say could be ready by 2030.

Pfizer is currently running a late-stage trial for its vaccine in partnership with BioNTech, according to Guardian.

In the United Kingdom, Forbes reported that BioNTech could start cancer vaccine trial by September in partnership with the government.

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As many as 10,000 cancer patients in the U.K. will be treated with personalized mRNA cancer treatments by 2030, BioNTech said in a statement, whether as part of a clinical trial testing the new therapies or as approved treatment, reported Forbes.

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