August 2023

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Health Capsule

Testing an mRNA Vaccine to Treat Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer. Only about 12% of people with this cancer will be alive five years after treatment. Scientists have been testing ways to get the body’s disease defense system, called the immune system, to fight pancreatic cancer. One research team created personalized vaccines. To do this, they used mRNA—the same approach used to make vaccines for COVID-19.

The researchers took tumor samples from 19 volunteers who had their pancreatic tumors removed. Scientists at BioNTech, a company that made one of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, made mRNA cancer vaccines customized for each patient. Each included genetic instructions for up to 20 proteins unique to the person’s pancreatic tumors. The researchers hoped these would trigger the immune system to recognize and attack the cancer cells.

The team was able to make customized vaccines for 18 of the 19 study participants. Each participant received nine vaccine doses over several months. After eight doses, they also received standard chemotherapy.

One and a half years after treatment, eight people remained cancer free. These were the patients who had the strongest immune responses to their vaccine. The researchers now want to learn why half the people did not have a strong response. The approach will also be tested soon in a larger clinical trial.

“It’s exciting to see that a personalized vaccine could enlist the immune system to fight pancreatic cancer—which urgently needs better treatments,” says study lead Dr. Vinod Balachandran of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.