Merck, Hadassah launch collaboration to use RNA-based therapeutics to fight cancer

Pharmaceutical company Merck and Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem launched CanceRNA, which aims to use messenger-RNA technology to treat cancer.

 Regine Shevach, Head of Merck’s Innovative Technologies Enablement Center in Israel. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)
Regine Shevach, Head of Merck’s Innovative Technologies Enablement Center in Israel.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

Regine Shevach, the head of Merck’s Innovative Technologies Enablement Center in Israel, has always believed in collaborations.

“In the past, projects usually happened within the same industry,” she said. “Today, however, things have changed, and often we need multidisciplinary collaborations. Some patients need better treatments, and hospitals, academia and companies team up to find the best solution.”

According to Shevach, Merck’s latest multidisciplinary initiative is a perfect example of the new direction the field takes. The pharmaceutical company and Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem just launched CanceRNA, which aims to use messenger-RNA technology to treat cancer.

Prof. Michal Lotem, head of the Hadassah Cancer Research Institute and Center for Melanoma, Cancer Immunotherapy, said, “Everything started with the COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccines taught us how powerful messenger RNA can be.”

What is Messenger RNA?

Messenger RNA is a type of molecule that carries codes from DNA and is involved in protein synthesis. The technology is at the core of both the Pfizer and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

 Prof. Michal Lotem, head of the Hadassah Cancer Research Institute (HCRI) and Center for Melanoma, Cancer Immunotherapy at Hadassah. (credit: YOAV DUDKEVITCH) Prof. Michal Lotem, head of the Hadassah Cancer Research Institute (HCRI) and Center for Melanoma, Cancer Immunotherapy at Hadassah. (credit: YOAV DUDKEVITCH)

“While we all hope that one day we will leave COVID behind, sadly there is no chance that cancer will be behind us any time soon.”

Prof. Michal Lotem

Lotem said the technology has proven to offer many advantages, including its ability to provide full immunization with a high level of stability. In addition, the fact that mRNA molecules disappear from the body within a few hours – or at most days – lowers the risk of possible serious side effects that are common in new drugs.

“While we all hope that one day we will leave COVID behind, sadly there is no chance that cancer will be behind us any time soon,” Lotem said. “Therefore, we thought we should take advantage of what we have learned about mRNA and start a collaborative effort to use it to cure cancer.”

The project is coordinated by Lotem and Prof. Rotem Karni, department chair of biochemistry and molecular biology at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School. It enjoys the participation of researchers from all over the world, including from the University of Rochester, the University of Lisbon, the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Erlangen, Bar-Ilan University, Immunyx, the Jose Carreras Institute in Spain, the University of Antwerp and other from Merck.

As far as the pharmaceutical giant is concerned, the company will bring to the table its high level of expertise on how to deliver the treatment where it is needed in order to make sure the drug targets the tumor and not healthy tissues.

“For pharmaceutical companies, much more than for us academics, delivery is one of the crucial questions they deal with every day,” Lotem said. “In addition, Merck has a lot of experience in the issue of how to generate antibodies.”

Shevach was immediately supportive of the project.

“Sometimes, in order to bring about change, you have to calculate the risks,” she said. “I’m very proud of my company for accepting to be part of this consortium. I’m sure this project will produce the results we are hoping for, but no matter what, we will learn a lot along the way.”

The project – which will develop in a three-year-long framework – kicked off in Jerusalem last month.

“I was very proud to escort our European partners visiting the beauties of the city,” Lotem said. “At the Israel Museum, we even ran into a former patient of mine, a woman who now, years after she finished her treatment, is completely cured from cancer. I felt it was a sign from God.”

This article was written in cooperation with Merck.