How new mRNA technologies are advancing the race for a cancer vaccine

Special How new mRNA technologies are advancing the race for a cancer vaccine
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Updated 28 April 2023

How new mRNA technologies are advancing the race for a cancer vaccine

How new mRNA technologies are advancing the race for a cancer vaccine
  • FII Institute Impact Report sheds light on promising developments in individualized vaccines for cancer patients
  • Thanks to the momentum of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same vaccine technology is currently used in experiments used to fight tumors

JEDDAH: Cancer — one word that can ruin the life of any human being. A word so soul-crushing that it brings disbelief, shock, fear, anger, and can break one’s spirit and the spirits of those around those diagnosed. Medical research has helped scientists develop methods of stopping cancer from metastasizing, but thanks to the momentum of the COVID-19 pandemic, promising new research may help end the battle against cancer.

A recent report released by the Future Investment Initiative (FII) Institute, entitled “Tumor No More: How Humanity Can Get Rid of Cancer,” has shed light on how mRNA (messenger RNA) technology is proving to be a promising opponent in the fight against cancer. By producing individualized vaccines for cancer patients, the mRNA technology once deemed absurd by the scientific community is starting to gain attention as scientists begin to tap into its potential thanks to the swift delivery of the world’s first mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine three years ago.

“This is one of the best examples of the positive impact that new technologies can have on humanity. And in this report we tried to find out how the mRNA success story might continue,” Richard Attais, CEO of FII Institute, told Arab News.

The job is simple: mRNA’s role is to carry protein information from the DNA of a cell’s nucleus to the cell’s cytoplasm (gelatinous interior). For vaccines, this works by introducing a segment of mRNA that corresponds to a viral protein, usually a tiny piece of a protein found on a virus’ outer membrane. 

The technology is not new. In early experiments, carrying messages to the intended target was deemed unstable and volatile. But not anymore.

The report’s findings look into how the technology may be used, the challenges of cancer therapy and vaccine studies, and, finally, possible proposals by the authors.

Shutterstock illustration image

Fast forward to 2020: Scientists discovered a substance to tame the unstable messenger using fat chemically. Known as “lipid nanoparticles,” these provide a stable and protective layer around the mRNA and unleash the message once a foreign body enters the human body, such was the case for COVID-19 infections. Then, the mRNA kills the virus’ proteins by building a protein specific to a virus, teaching the immune system how to behave when exposed to a potential threat.

“Capitalizing on the knowledge we gained about the use of mRNA technology during the COVID-19 vaccine’s development, we have an opportunity to address the challenges of equality and fairness now as we look toward the future distribution of a potential cancer vaccine. This is a challenge for humanity,” Safiye Kucukkaraca, head of THINK, FII Institute, told Arab News.

Infographic credit: FII: Cancer Vaccine Fairness Impact Report 2023

So how would this work to battle cancer?

Every cell contains protein, including cancer cells. A 2017 paper published in Nature magazine by BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin, entitled “Personalized RNA Mutanome Vaccines Mobilize Poly-Specific Therapeutic Immunity Against Cancer,” indicated that scientists were able to design and manufacture a vaccine unique to each cancer patient that had been diagnosed with melanoma. The results were auspicious, as the rate of cancer metastasizing was significantly reduced after the start of vaccination. 

BioNtech's CEO Ugur Sahin (R) speaks during a joint press conference with his wife co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech Ozlem Tureci (C) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a BioNTech plant making mRNA-based vaccines and therapies in Marburg, Germany, on February 2, 2023. (AFP)

The only difference is that in COVID-19, mRNA can protect billions of people with one vaccine.

Cancer cells differ in each cancer patient, each with a unique genetic fingerprint. The difficulty lies in manufacturing the vaccine, as personalized mRNA vaccines must be developed for each patient. The process requires looking for a common protein in those cancer cells, constructing an mRNA strand that produces the same protein, creating the unique vaccine, and then vaccinating the patient with the mRNA. The immune system would then develop antibodies against the protein and combat tumor cells in cancer. 

Developing a separate vaccine for each tumor can only be made possible by the development of a reliable and fast technology for decoding genetic material, a method that is currently being tested in several medical labs across the world. 

Infographic credit: FII: Cancer Vaccine Fairness Impact Report 2023

Speed was essential for fighting COVID-19, such was the case with Moderna and BioNTech, two of the first companies to develop the vaccine. Speed will be as crucial for fighting individual cancer cases. Once the targeted structure is identified, the effort required to produce a specific mRNA for that target is relatively minor.

Several cancer vaccine technologies are already used in cancer patients, designed to stimulate the immune system in various ways to attack the tumor cells. The primary forms are protein/peptide-based vaccines, DNA or RNA-based vaccines, dendritic cell therapy, T-cell therapy, and CAR-T-cell therapy, all highly innovative therapeutic options.

Researchers test procedures for the manufacturing of the messenger RNA (mRNA) for the COVID-19 vaccine at a new manufacturing site of German company BioNTech on March 27, 2021 in Marburg, Germany. (Thomas Lohnes / AFP)

The report indicated that several clinical studies, often combined with other cancer therapies, are currently in the works, focusing on patients with advanced-stage melanoma, advanced lung cancer, and brain glioma (tumors that spread in the brain), to name a few. Several published findings showed promising results, whereas others are still forthcoming.

The report stressed the scalability of the technology, adding that it will probably take at least another five years before the first mRNA vaccine against cancer is approved. Though it may seem that it is still a long way off, there is hope for developing “a new and effective weapon.”

Infographic credit: FII: Cancer Vaccine Fairness Impact Report 2023

However, the road ahead is long and challenging.

According to Dr. Niels Halama, a professor of translational immunotherapy at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, “tumor cells have developed a number of very diverse mechanisms to protect themselves.” 

He noted in the report that some tumors grow without the immune system being able to detect them or stop them, raising the question if vaccines alone are enough to reverse the process of detecting them, adding that there are several clinical studies currently that could shed more light on the matter. 

Halama also noted that there are cancers, such as melanoma or lung cancer, that can respond well to immunotherapy.

“A significant proportion of patients respond and we know that the tumor allows the cells of the immune system to enter the tumor microenvironment. So, if you use a therapy that activates the immune system in the right way, you can kill the tumor,” he said, adding that it seems possible that vaccines could alter the response system for other cancers like pancreatic cancer or breast cancer that cannot be treated with immunotherapy.

Though many questions are still unanswered, Halama indicated that due to the COVID-19 vaccines, the structures of how mRNA is processed, packaged, and transferred to the individual have improved, unlike how it was before as molecules are known to having a short lifespan and quick to degrade. 

One other challenge highlighted in the report was risk. 

“Tumor vaccination is a therapy that is very well tolerated, with few to almost no side effects. But it is possible this will change in combination with other therapies, as some of them weaken or even overactivate the immune system,” said Halama.

Numerous studies are underway worldwide to test vaccines against a wide range of cancers, from lung cancer to melanoma, listed in an international database,, which covers a variety of cancers.

This photo taken on November 17, 2021, shows a laboratory employee at work at the Transgene biotech firm, which is developing a neo-antigen cancer vaccine, in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, France. (AFP File)

For scientists and researchers, the challenge of selecting which type of cancer to use the vaccine therapy on, the stage of cancer, the mechanisms that tumors use to “hide from the immune system,” suitable candidates, a patient’s overall state of health, and what properties must a target structure have in order to be considered is massive due to the unpredictable nature of some cancers and further responses to various forms of therapies.

A significant portion of cancers in industrial nations are attributable to preventable environmental and occupational risks, posing another challenge.

The report clearly indicates that vaccines are not a miracle cure; in fact, it is merely “a tool in a big toolbox” as it has to be integrated into a comprehensive therapy plan with considerations for how it can be utilized alongside other methods such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other immunotherapies.

Though the success of cancer therapies is increasing, there is still a need for additional, innovative research, as although researchers agree that mRNA vaccine technology has enormous potential, it is still in its infancy “in terms of concrete implementation.”


The UK is stepping up lawmakers’ security as tensions flare over the Israel-Hamas war

Updated 2 sec ago

The UK is stepping up lawmakers’ security as tensions flare over the Israel-Hamas war

The UK is stepping up lawmakers’ security as tensions flare over the Israel-Hamas war
LONDON: The British government said Wednesday that it is stepping up security for lawmakers after politicians reported threats and intimidation connected to the Israel-Hamas war.
The Home Office said a 31 million-pound ($40 million) fund will give every lawmaker a “dedicated named police contact” and provide money for those facing threats to pay for private security protection.
The government said some of the money will go more broadly to protecting Britain’s “democratic processes from intimidation, disruption or subversion” ahead of a general election later this year. The fund includes money for extra police patrols in areas where tensions are high.
Divisions over the conflict in Gaza have convulsed British politics, with some lawmakers saying they fear for their safety after receiving threats over their positions on the war. Reports of both antisemitic and anti-Muslim abuse in Britain have soared since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which triggered Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
A debate last week in the House of Commons on whether to call for a ceasefire descended into chaos amid allegations the speaker of the house had bent parliamentary rules in response to pressure from pro-Palestinian activists.
Conservative lawmaker Mike Freer has announced he is stepping down because of abuse and death threats linked to his support for Israel. Freer said an arson attack on his office in December was the “final straw.”
He said the money announced Wednesday was only “dealing with the symptom” rather than “going to the root cause” of why people feel emboldened to attack politicians.
“Security is welcome,” Freer told Times Radio. “But frankly, unless you get to the root cause, then you’re just going to have a ring of steel around MPs. And our whole style of democracy changes.”
British lawmakers have a tradition of meeting regularly with constituents in their local communities, but security has been tightened after several attacks in the last decade. In 2016, Labour lawmaker Jo Cox was killed by a far-right extremist, and Conservative David Amess was murdered in 2021 by an attacker inspired by the Daesh group.
In 2017 a Daesh-inspired extremist killed four people with a vehicle on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer to death at the gates of Parliament. Two years later, in 2019, a neo-Nazi pleaded guilty to plotting to kill a Labour lawmaker.
Anti-war activists claimed the government was trying to stifle protest and lumping peaceful demonstrators in with violent extremists.
Home Secretary James Cleverly called on pro-Palestinian demonstrators to halt the mass protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to central London almost weekly to call for a ceasefire in a conflict that has killed close to 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
Israel says Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and abducted roughly 250, in the Oct. 7 attack.
The protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, though there have dozens of arrests over signs and chants allegedly supporting Hamas, a banned organization in Britain. Jewish organizations and many lawmakers say the mass marches have created an intimidating atmosphere for Jewish Londoners — though members of the Jewish community have been among those on pro-ceasefire marches.
“I genuinely don’t know what these regular protests are seeking to achieve,” Cleverly told the Times of London. “They have made their position clear, we recognize that there are many people in the UK that hold that position. We respect that, but the UK government’s position is a disagreement with that for very practical, well thought-out reasons.”
The government says it supports an immediate “humanitarian pause” in the fighting but says a permanent ceasefire can only happen if Hamas frees all Israeli hostages and relinquishes control of Gaza.
Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has organized many protests, said Cleverly’s comments showed the government did not understand the role of protest “as an important part of the democratic process.”
“They regard it as a hindrance, something that should be suppressed,” Jamal said.

Ukraine’s Zelensky seeks Balkan arms, support at summit in Albania

Ukraine’s Zelensky seeks Balkan arms, support at summit in Albania
Updated 24 min 11 sec ago

Ukraine’s Zelensky seeks Balkan arms, support at summit in Albania

Ukraine’s Zelensky seeks Balkan arms, support at summit in Albania
  • “We are interested in co-production with you and all our partners,” Zelensky told top delegations
  • “We see the problems with the supply of ammunition, which affects the situation on the battlefield”

TIRANA: President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to drum up Balkan support for his vision of peace in Ukraine and promoted the idea of joint arms production at a two-day summit of southeastern European countries on Wednesday.
The summit in the Albanian capital Tirana comes as Kyiv is trying to improve its defensive capabilities to beat back Russian forces at a time of faltering US support more than two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“We are interested in co-production with you and all our partners,” Zelensky told top delegations from Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia and Moldova in his opening remarks at the summit.
“There are about 500 defense companies operating in Ukraine, each of them adds strength but it is not enough to win (against Russian President Vladimir) Putin. We see the problems with the supply of ammunition, which affects the situation on the battlefield.”
Zelensky proposed organizing a Ukrainian-Balkans defense forum in Kyiv or a Balkan capital to nurture arms cooperation, repeating similar initiatives conducted last year with British and US weapons companies.
Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro are NATO members, have joined Western sanctions against Russia and sent arms and equipment to Ukraine. There are significant arms industries in parts of the Balkans, especially Serbia and Croatia, a legacy of former federal Yugoslavia.
Longtime Moscow ally Serbia has not imposed sanctions, and neither Belgrade nor Kyiv recognize the independence of Kosovo, Serbia’s former predominantly Albanian southern province which backs Ukraine and is seeking European Union and NATO membership.
Zelensky said he had invited all Balkan region leaders to take part in a summit of partners and allies in Switzerland this spring that would discuss his vision of peace, which entails a Russian military withdrawal from all of Ukrainian territory.
That diplomatic initiative — based on what is known as Zelensky’s “peace formula” — does not involve Russia and has been dismissed by Moscow as a non-starter.
Zelensky said he met Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama for talks and that the two leaders had signed an Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation between Ukraine and Albania.
“This document will contribute to the development of cooperation and strengthening of Ukraine’s position in the Balkan region,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram messenger.
His chief of staff Andriy Yermak said: “They also spoke about Ukraine’s defense needs and the possibility of joint weapons production.”
Zelensky told a news conference later that every time weapons supplies to Ukraine were delayed it was a “gift” to Russia’s Putin, an apparent allusion to the months-long impasse in US Congress over providing more assistance for Kyiv.
Zelensky, who was in Saudi Arabia for talks on Tuesday, is due to meet the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro at the summit.
“A pivotal moment for fostering bilateral ties, and standing in solidarity with Ukraine in its heroic fight against Russia’s aggression,” Albanian Foreign Minister Igli Hasani wrote on X shortly after Zelensky’s arrival.

Russia FM to attend Turkiye diplomacy forum: ministries

Russia FM to attend Turkiye diplomacy forum: ministries
Updated 35 min 22 sec ago

Russia FM to attend Turkiye diplomacy forum: ministries

Russia FM to attend Turkiye diplomacy forum: ministries
  • Lavrov will meet Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan at the gathering
  • Turkiye, which like Ukraine and Russia borders the Black Sea, has succeeded in maintaining links to both sides in the conflict

ISTANBUL: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will attend a diplomacy forum in Turkiye from Friday, the countries’ governments said, following criticism of Ankara over its support for Moscow during the Ukraine war.
The Antalya Diplomacy Forum (ADF) in southern Turkiye began in 2021 as a place for policymakers, businessmen, researchers and academics to exchange ideas and views on diplomacy, policy and business.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Lavrov will meet Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan at the gathering and Turkish ministry spokesman Oncu Keceli confirmed as much to AFP.
Lavrov, an Antalya participant in 2022, just weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, last visited Turkiye in April last year, when he met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.
Turkiye, which like Ukraine and Russia borders the Black Sea, has succeeded in maintaining links to both sides in the conflict.
It has played a key role in the export of Ukrainian grain by sea, via a secure corridor under the aegis of the UN, but has also been singled out for helping Russia get around some Western sanctions.
Sixteen Turkish entities were targeted in the latest round of sanctions unveiled last week by the White House. Washington accused individuals and companies of helping to supply Russia’s industry and furthering Moscow’s ability to wage war against Ukraine.

Food aid from Indonesia enters Gaza amid Israeli blockades

Food aid from Indonesia enters Gaza amid Israeli blockades
Updated 28 February 2024

Food aid from Indonesia enters Gaza amid Israeli blockades

Food aid from Indonesia enters Gaza amid Israeli blockades
  • Aid convoys have been targeted by Israeli military, Indonesian volunteer says
  • Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are on the brink of famine

JAKARTA: Some trucks carrying humanitarian assistance from Indonesia have managed to enter Gaza, Indonesian volunteers confirmed, despite Israeli attacks on convoys and the blocking of critical aid.

Thousands of aid trucks have been waiting to enter Gaza on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, with the UN saying on Tuesday that convoys carrying humanitarian assistance have been targeted by Israeli attacks and prevented from reaching people in need.

Several trucks carrying wheat flour and food packages from the Indonesian NGO Medical Emergency Rescue Committee, or MER-C, are among the few that managed to enter Gaza recently, volunteers from the organization said.

The volunteers, Fikri Rofiul Haq and Reza Aldilla Kurniawan, chose to stay in Gaza when Israeli attacks on the besieged territory escalated in October. They were volunteering at the MER-C-funded Indonesia Hospital in northern Gaza. When the hospital was destroyed by the Israeli military, they sought safety in the southern part of the enclave.

“The aid delivery went through many obstacles, including a long authorization process and also lengthy inspection by Israeli officials, which have resulted in many of the food packages going bad,” Haq told Arab News on Wednesday.

Thousands of food packages were distributed last weekend in central and southern Gaza. MER-C volunteers steered clear from the enclave’s north as they feared being targeted by the Israeli military.

“All this aid from the Indonesian people through MER-C faces potential attacks by Israel,” Haq said. “Until this very second, Israeli forces continue to attack and they are attacking randomly — we never know when they might launch their assault.”

About 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s air and ground campaign in Gaza. The UN has warned that hundreds of thousands of people are now on the brink of famine as the enclave’s population relies on inadequate food aid to survive.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Monday that the number of food aid trucks entering Gaza had decreased by about one-third since the International Court of Justice ruled last month that Israel must do everything to prevent genocidal acts in the besieged territory, and take “immediate and effective measures” for aid provision.

“Israel continues to obstruct the provision of basic services and the entry and distribution within Gaza of fuel and lifesaving aid, acts of collective punishment that amount to war crimes and include the use of starvation of civilians as a weapon of war,” HRW said in a statement.

Prince Harry loses case against UK government over security

Prince Harry loses case against UK government over security
Updated 28 February 2024

Prince Harry loses case against UK government over security

Prince Harry loses case against UK government over security
  • Lawyers for the government rejected claims that Harry was ‘singled out’ and treated ‘less favorably’

LONDON: Prince Harry lost a court challenge against the UK government on Wednesday over a decision to change the level of his personal security when he visits the country.
The youngest son of King Charles III launched legal action against the government after being told in February 2020 that he would no longer be given the “same degree” of publicly-funded protection when in Britain.
“The ‘bespoke’ process devised for the claimant in the decision of 28 February 2020 was, and is, legally sound,” High Court judge Peter Lane said in his 52-page judgment.
Harry sensationally left Britain in 2020 with his wife Meghan, eventually settling in California in the United States.
The prince told a hearing at London’s High Court in December that security concerns were preventing visits back to the United Kingdom.
“The UK is my home. The UK is central to the heritage of my children,” he told court in a written statement read out by his lawyers.
“That cannot happen if it’s not possible to keep them safe.
“I cannot put my wife in danger like that and, given my experiences in life, I am reluctant to unnecessarily put myself in harm’s way too,” he added.
Harry’s mother Princess Diana was killed in a high-speed car crash in Paris in 1997 as she tried to escape paparazzi photographers.
Lawyers for the government rejected claims that Harry was “singled out” and treated “less favorably” or that a proper risk analysis was not carried out.
James Eadie, for the interior ministry, told the court that it was decided Harry would not be provided the same level of protection as before because he had left life as a working royal and mostly lived abroad.
In May 2023, Harry lost a bid for a legal review of another government decision refusing him permission to pay for specialist UK police protection himself.
The interior ministry argued then that it was “not appropriate” for wealthy people to “buy” protective security when it had decided that it was not in the public interest for such taxpayer-funded protection.
London’s Metropolitan Police also opposed Harry’s offer on the grounds that it would be wrong to “place officers in harm’s way upon payment of a fee by a private individual.”
It is one of many legal cases launched by Harry.
Earlier this month, he settled a long-running lawsuit against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), whose journalists he accused of being linked to deceptive and unlawful methods, but vowed to continue his legal battles with several other UK media outlets.
Harry is one of seven high-profile people, including Elton John, bringing legal action against the publisher of the Daily Mail over allegations of unlawful information gathering.
He and actor Hugh Grant are also suing News Group Newspapers (NGN), part of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire and publisher of The Sun and the now-defunct News Of The World tabloids, over similar claims.
However, Harry last month dropped his libel case against UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday over an article on his legal battles with the UK government.