Experts predict that ground-breaking vaccines for various conditions, including cancer, could save millions of lives. A prominent pharmaceutical company is optimistic that vaccines for cancer, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, and other conditions will be ready by 2030.
Research into these vaccines is showing "tremendous promise," with some scientists stating that progress equivalent to 15 years has been achieved in 12 to 18 months, thanks to the success of the Covid vaccine.
Dr. Paul Burton, Chief Medical Officer of pharmaceutical company Moderna, believes that the company will be able to offer treatments for "all sorts of disease areas" within five years. Moderna, the creator of a leading Covid vaccine, is developing cancer vaccines targeting different tumour types.
Burton expressed confidence that the vaccine will be highly effective and will save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. He also envisions offering personalized cancer vaccines against multiple tumour types to people worldwide. Additionally, he mentioned that a single injection could potentially cover multiple respiratory infections, protecting vulnerable individuals against Covid, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). mRNA therapies could also become available for rare diseases that currently have no drugs. mRNA-based therapies function by instructing cells to produce a protein that activates the body's immune response against disease.
Burton also envisions mRNA-based therapies for rare diseases that were previously untreatable, stating that a decade from now, the world may be able to identify the genetic cause of a disease and simply edit it out and repair it using mRNA-based technology. However, scientists caution that the rapid progress made in the past three years will be wasted if high levels of investment are not maintained.
An mRNA-based cancer vaccine would alert the immune system to a cancer already growing in a patient's body, enabling it to attack and destroy the cancer without harming healthy cells. This process involves identifying protein fragments on cancer cell surfaces not found on healthy cells and which are most likely to provoke an immune response, and then creating mRNA pieces that instruct the body on how to produce them.
To develop a personalized vaccine, doctors first biopsy a patient's tumour and send it to a lab, where its genetic material is sequenced to identify mutations absent in healthy cells. A machine learning algorithm then determines which of these mutations drive cancer growth and learns which parts of the abnormal proteins encoded by these mutations are most likely to trigger an immune response. The most promising antigens are then manufactured as mRNAs and packaged into a personalized vaccine.
In January, Moderna announced the results of a late-stage trial of its experimental mRNA vaccine for RSV, which showed 83.7% effectiveness at preventing at least two symptoms in adults aged 60 and older. Based on this data, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the vaccine breakthrough therapy designation, expediting its regulatory review.
In February, the FDA granted the same designation to Moderna's personalized cancer vaccine, based on recent results in patients with melanoma, a type of skin cancer.
Pfizer has also begun recruiting for a late-stage clinical trial of an mRNA-based influenza vaccine and is targeting other infectious diseases, including shingles, in collaboration with BioNTech. A Pfizer spokesperson said that the Covid-19 vaccine development process has informed the company's overall approach to mRNA research and development.
Other vaccine technologies have also advanced during the pandemic, including next-generation protein-based vaccines like the Covid vaccine developed by US-based biotechnology company Novavax.
Dr. Richard Hackett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (Cepi), said that the most significant impact of the pandemic has been the shortening of development timelines for many previously unvalidated vaccine platforms. Prof. Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and chair of the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), also acknowledged the increased interest in vaccines. However, he emphasized the importance of considering the future direction of vaccine research and development.
As the threat of wider conflict in Europe looms, there is a risk that the focus on vaccines could be lost, failing to capitalize on the momentum and technological insights gained during the pandemic. Pollard believes that this would be a mistake.
He explained that during peacetime, countries invest in maintaining a substantial military force, despite pandemics posing an equal or greater threat than a military conflict. He argued that the investment in pandemic preparedness should be at least as significant as that dedicated to building a single nuclear submarine.