For most of the last century, doctors have searched with limited success for a cure for cancer. As a group, cancers are among the deadliest diseases to affect humans and feature poor outcomes and high death rates. And although doctors have made tremendous strides in decreasing cancer’s grim mortality rates, the prospect of a cure still seems elusive.
But it may not be as far off as most people believe. And the recent success of the twin COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna might be a very public symbol of that reality. That’s because the vaccines rely on mRNA technology, which many researchers believe might be the long-sought decisive weapon in the war against cancer.
Why Cancer is So Difficult to Cure
The difficulty involved in finding a cure for cancer is that it’s not a single disease. It’s an umbrella term covering more than 200 known types of similar ailments. That means all attempts to find a cure must be either specific to a single type of cancer or take an approach that deals with some of the root condition’s common elements. And on top of that cancer is far from a static target.
A single individual, once diagnosed with cancer, will see their disease go through multiple stages and genetic variations. This means that a treatment that can kill certain cancer cells might be ineffective against others, which is why so many cancer patients see a reoccurrence of their disease. And because cancer involves cells created by the patient’s own body, it’s quite difficult to find ways to use the body’s best defenses – a strong immune response – to help them fight it off.
How mRNA Might Change the Cancer Calculus
The technique of using mRNA – which are sets of genetic instructions that prompt the human body to manufacture specific proteins – as a weapon against cancer, is not a new idea. Scientists have been looking into it for decades as a promising treatment option. The problem, however, was that most efforts at creating artificial mRNA treatments resulted in extreme immune responses that made the treatment almost as bad as the disease.
But the recent mRNA vaccines made use of a new approach that encloses the artificial mRNA inside a lipid nanoparticle, disguising it long enough to trigger its intended response. That now means scientists have a reliable way of delivering mRNA treatments to the human body, creating the possibility of using it as a targeted cancer treatment. Already, there are clinical trials ongoing that apply the technology to post-surgical cancer patients.
In the trials, cancerous tissue from each patient is sent for laboratory testing at the time they undergo surgery to remove any previously discovered tumors. The laboratory then uses an absorbance microplate reader to conduct a rapid genetic analysis, to isolate and map as many as 20 unique genetic mutations that exist in the tissue. They can then use that information as a road map to create a patient-specific vaccine that instructs the body to find and kill those variants.
What Comes Next
Although the researchers behind the current round of clinical trials using mRNA vaccines as post-surgical cancer treatments have yet to publish any results from their work, there’s reason to believe they’ll find some degree of success. After all, the biggest roadblock to creating an effective cure for cancer was the replication speed and genetic variations that exist from patient to patient. And because this treatment is customizable at high speed, it’s the first approach that can deal with those problems head-on.
And the research that led to the use of mRNA in the current generation of COVID-19 vaccines is already proving itself in the field every day. That will substantially speed up the timelines between these cancer-specific clinical trials and real-world use of the technology, if proven effective. That means we could be mere months or years away from a viable cure for many, if not most, forms of cancer.
That’s an awful lot sooner than anyone expected such a breakthrough to come. And when it happens, it will mark a turning point in the fight against one of humanity’s deadliest enemies. It’s a rare bright spot in what has been a difficult year and a half for the healthcare industry, and one that people everywhere will celebrate for generations to come.