Cancers aren’t like coronavirus infections, but fighting them may have a lot of similarities.
For the last several years, researchers have been working with technology based around mRNA — messenger RNA, which is something that complements the work of your DNA — to see if they can utilize it to get your body’s own immune system to fight cancers. At Duke University, they’re working with mRNA technology to create vaccines for cancer.
“It is a product which is RNA nucleic acid which encodes a specific protein and then that can be encapsulated in something we like to call a lipid nanoparticle, which is really a little fat bubble, and that can be injected into your body and sort of teaches your body what to go after immunologically,” said Zachary Hartman, who works in the Lyerly Lab at Duke.
If it all sounds familiar, it should — mRNA vaccines have been in the news quite a bit over the last two years. It’s the type of technology used to create the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Remember, people were expecting that a successful vaccine would provide protective immunity to about 50% of patients, and the first two mRNA vaccines provided over 90% protection, a remarkable achievement,” said Dr. H. Kim Lyerly, who runs the lab at Duke.
Lyerly has been at Duke for nearly 40 years and has seen massive changes in how we can combat cancer going from relatively crude chemotherapy to very targeted immunotherapy.
“Think about that, in my career, a complete reversal of fortune for immunotherapy to be something to being considered an outsider, not likely to ever work, to being the most prominent form of cancer therapy and the development of new cancer therapeutics in the world today,” said Lyerly.
He’s taken note of the people who are skeptical when it comes to the new mRNA vaccines, but he thinks their concern is misplaced.
“You have mRNAs – billions of mRNA copies in your body right now. And so, to be concerned that the introduction of an mRNA coding of a viral protein is going to be harmful to you, again, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because if you happen to be infected with a coronavirus, you’re going to have a thousand times more mRNAs from the virus invading your body. So, the way to protect yourself from disease-causing mRNAs in your body is to vaccinate yourself,” he said.
Zach Hartman believes this technology will change the way we treat cancers completely.
“I think that within my lifetime, we will see cancer as a more managed disease,” said Hartman. “We’re going to turn the dial and be able to treat more and more of these kinds of cancers in the coming years and decades to where it’s not quite the same sentence it was 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to rid the world of cancer, but I think we will be able to prevent a lot of cancers, and then a lot of cancers that we’ll be able to catch early and treat, we’ll have very effective treatments.”