Couple who stopped COVID-19 promise cancer vaccine by 2030

These two doctors developed one of the vaccines against COVID-19. It's believed that they will succeed in developing a vaccine against specific cancers in the next eight years.

Founders of BioNTech, Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Founders of BioNTech, Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Ugur Sahin, 55, and his wife Dr. Ozlem Tureci, 53, who founded the biotechnology company BioNTech in 2008 and worked with Pfizer to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, predict that a cancer vaccine may be widely available as early as the next decade.

Tureci stated during an interview with the BBC that both doctors feel that a cure for cancer, which will really change the lives of cancer patients, is within reach. 

Sahin said that the cancer vaccine, which will be based on breakthroughs achieved by scientists while developing the COVID-19 vaccine, may be widely available by 2030.

How would a cancer vaccine work?

The hope is that a vaccine currently in development will train the body to recognize and attack cancers using mRNA technology. Sahin explained that their goal is to use a personalized vaccine approach to ensure that immediately after tumor surgery, patients receive a personalized vaccine, which will cause an immune response. 

Syringes are seen in front of displayed Biontech and Pfizer logos in this illustration (credit: REUTERS)Syringes are seen in front of displayed Biontech and Pfizer logos in this illustration (credit: REUTERS)

Then, T cells in the patient's body can filter out the remaining cancer cells and ideally eliminate the tumor.

In June 2021, it was reported that the first patient in the BioNTech Phase II trial of an mRNA vaccine against cancer received his first dose. The BNT111 treatment will be combined with an existing immunotherapy drug to fight a specific type of advanced melanoma.

The experiment is open-label, meaning that researchers and participants know which treatment is controlled and which is experimental, with the participation of 120 subjects. The trial will evaluate the overall response rate of BNT11 when used with cemiplimab, sold under the brand name Libtayo, as well as the duration of treatment and its safety. 

With promising results observed in the first phase of the trial, there are high hopes that the treatment will result in a strong and safe antibody response.

They started in oncology wards

BioNTech originally focused on developing mRNA-based technologies to treat cancer. Tureci said that the couple worked in oncology wards as young doctors, and were frustrated that they had no innovative treatments to offer patients. 

This motivated them to start cancer research. This work was the driving force behind the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is now reciprocal to their cancer research, Tureci said.

She added that what they learned about the immune system and the research progressing towards a cancer vaccine shows, in principle, the obvious: killer T cells can be stimulated, then targeted. 

Tureci said that it remains to be seen how doctors will use other types of medical interventions in conjunction with the vaccine and what else needs to be fixed to ensure that patients are cured.