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Pioneering new cancer vaccine planned in England

The government have signed an agreement with German pharmaceutical company BioNTech to ensure their innovative vaccine research comes to England.

An illustration of scientist who is a woman of colour looking down a microscope against a purple background.

This research, using the same technology that created COVID-19 vaccines, has the potential to transform personalised treatments for cancer patients.

This will also mean that English cancer patients will have early access to trials developed by BioNTech in the future.

It is hoped that up to 10,000 people diagnosed with cancer could have access to this technology. And that it will help treat different types of cancer at different stages of the disease.

What are mRNA vaccines?

mRNA vaccines are widely used to protect against COVID-19. It is now hoped that researchers can harness the power of these vaccines to treat cancer.

This is a step towards personalised medicine for those diagnosed with cancer.

The vaccines are created by taking bits of the genetic code from a person’s cancer. Once injected into that same person, the immune system is ‘trained’ to recognise those bits of genetic code and marks the cancer to be attacked and killed by immune cells.

Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which damages cancer cells and lots of other cells in the body, mRNA vaccines would be specific to the cancer and will instruct the immune system to only kill the cancer cells.

Harnessing the natural ability of our immune system to kill anything ‘foreign’ in the body is a powerful tool and will help reduce treatment side effects.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that vaccines can be made, tested and safely administered to lots of people in a relatively short period of time. The potential to apply this to treating cancer gives hope to so many more people faced with devastating diagnoses.

Find out more about this agreement here.

What about brain tumours?

This vaccine technology has the ability to fight many different types of cancer. And could open new opportunities for brain tumour treatment.

It is important that brain tumours, and other less survivable cancers, are considered in this research and in the development of these vaccines. As one of the less survivable cancers with some of the poorest outcomes, treatments for brain cancers have not developed in decades. The brain tumour community is in need of new breakthroughs in treatments and care. Personalised medicine could be the way forward. 

Personalised approaches to treating brain tumours are incredibly important due to nature of these tumours – they can be made up of different cell types or have different biomarkers – which makes them hard to treat. Understanding a tumour in greater detail would improve treatment options and quality of life for those living with a brain tumour.

What are we doing for personalised medicine?

At The Brain Tumour Charity we are pioneering this idea of personalised medicine in the BRAIN MATRIX study. This study aims to fully understand a person’s brain tumour using advanced diagnostic technology.

Each person enrolled into BRAIN MATRIX will have their tumour tested in a lab to reveal its specific profile of genetic and molecular changes. This level of detail about individual tumours will allow people to be enrolled into clinical trials faster. And could inform different treatment options available to individuals.

This will be the most powerful tumour analysis ever used. And will go on to improve treatment and quality of life for those living with a brain tumour.

What else has been done?

Other trials which have been successful in treating brain tumours include the DCVax-L study. DCVax-L is a personalised vaccine made from each patient’s own dendritic cells. These cells ‘teach’ the immune system to recognise and attack the cancer cells.

Dr David Jenkinson, Chief Scientific Officer at The Brain Tumour Charity, said:

“Taking the technology used to create the COVID-19 vaccine and the speed at which it was developed and applying that to cancer is an exciting step in cancer research. We urge the government to ensure brain tumours are included in this research and that they are not side-lined because they are considered as too difficult to treat – something that we have seen in the past.

“We know that personalised medicine approaches are important for those diagnosed with brain tumours as has been seen in the DCVax-L study. We are also putting a pathway in place in our BRAIN MATRIX project to ensure that tumour DNA is sequenced so we can know as much as possible about a person’s tumour and can find the best ways to treat it.

“Focussing on the use of personalised medicine has the potential to improve lives for those living with a brain tumour, and we look forward to monitoring future research.”