mRNA technology behind COVID-19 vaccines could change how we treat cancer

August 5 2021

Re-printed without permission

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge shot in the arm for mRNA vaccine technology and could change the way we treat other diseases, post-pandemic, according to UBC researchers.

The technology is described by Dr. Anna Blakney at UBC as a “stepping stone between DNA and proteins” that gives your cells a code to make a certain protein.

She says even before the pandemic, work was underway on a mRNA cancer vaccine to treat patients with advanced melanoma.

“In the same way that we can train your immune system to recognize a virus, we can also train your immune system to recognize and kill a cancerous cell,” she said, adding such vaccines have already been tested in some clinical trials.

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But Blakney, an assistant professor at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories and school of biomedical engineering, says how quickly a mRNA vaccine for cancer can be developed depends largely on funding. She points to the money and attention that was given to COVID-19 vaccines as an example of how quickly one can be developed.

“I think given the booster the field has gotten and all the progress that’s been made around the technology, scaling it up, producing it, and knowing what you need to have an approved vaccine, I think you’ll start to see them come online, hopefully sooner rather than later,” she said.

UBC Dr. Anna Blakney

Dr. Anna Blakney was part of the team at Imperial College London that developed an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 before coming to Vancouver to work at UBC. Credit: Paul Joseph/UBC

Blakney says this type of vaccine could also replace existing treatments for other illnesses.

“For the flu vaccine, in a good year, it’s about 30 to 40 per cent effective, which totally pales in comparison to the COVID vaccines that we’ve seen are 94, 95 per cent effective. But one of the reasons the flu vaccine has such a low efficacy is because it’s a virus that mutates very quickly — much faster than COVID,” she explained.

The majority of flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs and takes months to develop and manufacture. Researchers also have to determine which strain to focus on for any given flu season.

“If we didn’t take so long to manufacture them — like with RNA vaccines, we can make a huge batch in two weeks, tops — you can imagine having a few different flu vaccine options throughout the flu season such that you’re not deciding six months in advance what you’re putting into it. Maybe you would be deciding two or three weeks in advance of the release of the vaccine,” Blakney said.

Blakney adds mRNA technology can also be used to improve vaccines like the one used to prevent yellow fever, which is a virus seen in Africa and South America.

With files from Paul James