While breakthroughs in cancer research routinely top medical news headlines, in 2020, it was COVID-19 mRNA vaccine research that practically monopolized the front pages. Lost in the deluge of pandemic-related press was the fact that long before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, mRNA-based vaccines were being studied as a new way to fight cancers effectively.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a natural genetic material — a nucleic acid, specifically — produced by our cells. mRNA serves as a blueprint to translate instructions from our DNA, enabling the synthesis of all types of proteins. These proteins are key cellular-level players in almost every bodily function, from organ structure, to growth, to immune system response.
mRNA technology focuses on the artificial synthesis of mRNA in a laboratory. When the newly created nucleic acid is introduced into a person’s body, as in a vaccine, it can then command our existing cellular machinery to generate proteins that our bodies would not have otherwise produced. In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA contained in the Pfizer and Moderna inoculations tricks our body into producing a protein that is normally only present on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.
Without being infected with the virus itself, our bodies would not know how to produce this protein. The mRNA-triggered production of a COVID-19 protein foreign to our bodies jumpstarts an immune response. Our system starts producing antibodies against this extraneous protein and can then be prepared to fight off potential virus exposure in the future.
Cancer shares some similarities with infections, making vaccines a promising avenue in cancer therapy. Even though cancer comes about from our own body and is not a communicable disease, cancer cells are different from the healthy cells of the organs from which they arise. Because cancer cells have mutations in their DNA, they produce proteins on their surface that are either structurally different or anomalously numerous compared to those on the cellular membranes of healthy cells.
The challenge for our immune system is that cancer cells have the ability to go undetected.
The goal of a cancer mRNA vaccine would be to prime our immune system to recognize the abnormal proteins on cancerous tissue and start eliminating them at a cellular level as it would with an invading virus or bacteria.
There are currently several ongoing clinical trials using engineered viruses as delivery vectors of targeted mRNA to treat many types of cancer.
For now, it is important for cancer patients to recognize the importance of a COVID-19 vaccination. Cancer treatments and cancer itself can weaken our immune system, putting patients at higher risk of serious complications or death if infected with COVID-19. Various national cancer organizations and the CDC encourage vaccinations for patients with cancer, including those receiving chemotherapies and immunotherapies. While vaccination is thought to be safe, it is less certain how much of the vaccine’s effectiveness or durability is reduced by certain cancer treatments that depress the immune system’s ability to create antibodies.
Again, except for patients undergoing stem cell transplantation, the current recommendation from most experts in the field is that cancer patients across the board get vaccinated as soon as they are given access to these new and effective COVID-19 mRNA immunizations.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 edition of Tower Magazine
Article Written by Jeremy Lorber, MD, IM/Hematology/Oncology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for Tower Cancer Research Foundation