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
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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, ClinicalTrials.gov, 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.”

 


India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law

India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law
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India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law

India’s Assam scraps colonial-era Muslim marriage law
  • Eighty-nine year law allowed marriage involving underage Muslims 
  • Leaders of India’s Muslim community decry move as discriminatory

GUWAHATI, India: India’s Assam state has scrapped an 89-year-old law that allowed marriage involving underage Muslims, against opposition from leaders of the minority community who called the plan an attempt to polarize voters on religious lines ahead of elections.

Assam, which has the highest percentage of Muslims among Indian states at 34 percent, has previously said it wants to implement uniform civil laws for marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance, as the state of Uttarakhand did earlier this month.

Nationwide, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other groups follow their own laws and customs or a secular code for such matters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised a Uniform Civil Code, opposed by Muslims.

Assam repealed the Assam Muslim Marriages and Divorces Registration Act, 1935, effective from Feb. 24, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma wrote on X on Saturday.

“This act contained provisions allowing marriage registration even if the bride and groom had not reached the legal ages of 18 and 21... This move marks another significant step toward prohibiting child marriages in Assam.”

Asked by Reuters on Sunday whether the northeastern state would implement a Uniform Civil Code before general elections due by May, Sarma said: “Not immediately.”

Many Muslims in Assam trace their roots to the neighboring Bengali-speaking and Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh. Tension often flares between the Muslims and ethnic Assamese, who are mostly Hindu.

The BJP, the governing party in Assam — and Uttarakhand — calls itself the champion of ethnic communities.

Muslim opposition leaders said repealing the colonial-era law was discriminatory.
“They want to polarize their voters by provoking Muslims, which Muslims will not let happen,” Badruddin Ajmal, a lawmaker from Assam who heads the All India United Democratic Front that mainly fights for Muslim causes, told reporters on Saturday.

“It’s a first step toward bringing a Uniform Civil Code, but this is how the BJP government will come to an end in Assam.”


Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills

Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills
Updated 25 February 2024
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Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills

Republican seeks to bar party from paying Trump’s legal bills
  • The former president faces four criminal trials and was recently ordered to pay about $540 million in judgments in two civil cases
  • “The RNC’s job is to win elections. It’s not to pay the legal bills for any leading candidate,” says the Republican National Committee member

NEW YORK: A Republican National Committee member has submitted resolutions that would prohibit the party from paying presidential candidate Donald Trump’s legal bills, according to a draft, but the measures must get more backers soon to move forward.

Mississippi RNC committeeman Henry Barbor drafted the resolution on Trump’s legal expenses and another requiring the party committee to stay neutral in the presidential race until he receives enough delegates to secure the nomination.
“The RNC’s job is to win elections. It’s not to pay the legal bills for any leading candidate. He’s got to fight his own legal fight,” Barbor told Reuters on Saturday.
Barbor needs to get two cosponsors from 10 states to join the effort by Tuesday for the resolutions to proceed to a full vote by the RNC’s 168 committee members. That vote could come in March and would require a simple majority to pass. But Barbor predicted they would be defeated if they reach that point.
Former President Trump, who denies all wrongdoing, faces four criminal trials and was recently ordered to pay about $540 million in judgments in two civil cases.
A Trump super PAC reported paying more than $47 million in legal expenses for him in 2023.
Trump is seeking to cement his status as Republican presidential nominee and gain more control over the RNC, including by nominating daughter-in-law Lara Trump as co-chair.
Lara Trump has said it is “a big interest to people” to pay fees for her father-in-law’s criminal and civil cases.
Barbor said pro-Trump forces were “jumping the gun” by seeking to declare Trump the party’s presidential nominee while longshot challenger Nikki Haley remains in the race for the Republican nomination to face Democratic President Joe Biden in the November election. Trump is on course for another easy win in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday.
The resolutions were first reported by The Dispatch. Trump campaign co-manager Chris LaCivita, who Trump has proposed serve as the RNC’s chief operating officer, on Saturday said in a statement that it is “the RNC’s sole responsibility to defeat Joe Biden and win back the White House.”
On Friday, he said the RNC would not use raised funds to pay for Trump’s legal bills.


British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets

British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets
Updated 25 February 2024
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British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets

British PM Sunak says West should be bolder about seizing Russian assets
  • The European Union, US, Japan and Canada froze some $300 billion of Russian central bank assets in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine
  • Sunak also urged the US to continue to provide financial and military support for Ukraine

LONDON: Western nations should be bolder about confiscating Russian assets which they froze after the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.
Sunak, in an article in an early edition of the Sunday Times to mark two years since the start of the conflict, said Ukraine continued to need more long-range weapons, drones and munitions, as well as other assistance.
“We must be bolder in hitting the Russian war economy .... And we must be bolder in seizing the hundreds of billions of frozen Russian assets,” he said .
Last month British Investment Minister Dominic Johnson met US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo to discuss the seizure of frozen Russian assets, but stressed this needed to be done in accordance with international law.
The European Union, US, Japan and Canada froze some $300 billion of Russian central bank assets in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Group of Seven countries have been studying a possible seizure of the assets as a way to have Russia pay for the damage its invasion caused in Ukraine.
Sunak also urged the US to continue to provide financial and military support for Ukraine.
“We should never underestimate what America has done for Ukraine and for Euro-Atlantic security. I urge them to continue that support, and I am confident they will,” he wrote in the article.
Britain’s defense ministry announced 245 million pounds ($311 million) of aid to fund Ukrainian artillery ammunition on Saturday.


Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination

Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination
Updated 25 February 2024
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Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination

Trump notches easy win over Haley in march to Republican nomination
  • Haley vows ‘not giving up,’ saying while Trump is strong within the party, he cannot win a general election
  • Poll says 32 percent of voters in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary contest think Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime

CHARLESTON, United States: Donald Trump cruised to a decisive victory Saturday in the South Carolina Republican primary, blitzing rival Nikki Haley in her home state and continuing his march to the nomination and a White House rematch with Joe Biden.

Nonetheless, Haley vowed to fight on Trump may have strong support for the Republican nomination, she has better chances of winning in the presidential race than Trump.

“I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run... I’m a woman of my word. I’m not giving up this fight when a majority of Americans disapprove of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” she said.

Trump completed a sweep of the first four major nominating contests, converting a year of blockbuster polls into a likely insurmountable lead going into the “Super Tuesday” 15-state voting bonanza in 10 days.

While Haley repeatedly questioned the 77-year-old former president’s mental fitness and warned another Trump presidency would bring “chaos,” her efforts appeared to do little to damage his standing among Republicans.

The margin of victory was not immediately clear but it was expected to be significant, with major US networks calling the race within seconds of the polls closing.

Haley, a popular governor of South Carolina in the 2010s and the only woman to have entered the Republican contest, was looking to outperform expectations in her own backyard and ride into Super Tuesday with wind her sails.

But she was never able to compete in a battleground that preferred Trump’s brand of right-wing “America first” populism and personal grievance over the four indictments and multiple civil lawsuits he faces.

Meanwhile, some 32 percent of voters in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary contest think Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime, according to the preliminary results of an exit poll conducted on Saturday by Edison Research.
The poll gathered responses from 1,508 voters in the Republican contest. Updated results will be available as more responses are gathered.

Trump had already won Iowa by 30 points and New Hampshire by 10, while a dispute in Nevada led to the real estate tycoon running unopposed in the official contest.

The margin of Trump’s victory was always the main question in South Carolina, with analysts arguing that Haley managing to whittle the gap to 15 points or less would have counted as a good night.
Trump aides have been clear however that they want to see off Haley long before the Republican National Convention in July — and are expecting the party to coalesce around the front-runner ahead of the first of his criminal trials on March 25.

Trump made clear Saturday that he is looking beyond Haley to a likely November contest against Biden.
Speaking ahead of voting booths closing to the Conservative Political Action Committee conference — a must-stop for Republican politicians — Trump spent much of his time bashing Biden, not Haley.
Haley — a traditional conservative who espouses limited government and a muscular foreign policy — has argued that a Trump presidency would be mired in scandal from day one.
The 52-year-old former UN ambassador underscored the point Saturday by describing as “disgusting” comments Trump had made to Black conservatives on the campaign trail.

“It’s disgusting. But that’s what happens when he goes off the teleprompter. That’s the chaos that comes with Donald Trump,” Haley said at a polling station in her home state.
“That’s the offensiveness that’s going to happen every day between now and the general election, which is why I continue to say Donald Trump cannot win a general election,” she added.
Trump made the comments Friday evening in a speech to Black conservatives.
Nodding to his multiple indictments, Trump said that “Black people like me because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against, and they actually viewed me as I’m being discriminated against.”
Haley has also blasted Trump’s reaction to the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny — he avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin — and his threat to encourage Moscow to attack NATO nations not meeting their financial obligations.
Her central argument — that polling shows her performing better than Trump in hypothetical matchups with Biden — may have fallen on deaf ears but she has vowed to stay in the race through Super Tuesday.
Analysts say she is building her profile for a potential 2028 run — and is poised to step in should legal or health problems knock Trump out of the race.
“Nikki Haley’s an incredible role model,” said one Republican voter, Julie Taylor. “She’s not giving up, she’s showing strength and grace and courage.”

One third of South Carolina Republicans would spurn Trump if he were convicted-exit poll
Some 32 percent of voters in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary contest think Donald Trump would not be fit for the presidency if he were convicted of a crime, according to the preliminary results of an exit poll conducted on Saturday by Edison Research.
The poll gathered responses from 1,508 voters in the Republican contest. Updated results will be available as more responses are gathered.

 


G7 pledges more Russia sanctions after virtual talks on Ukraine

G7 pledges more Russia sanctions after virtual talks on Ukraine
Updated 25 February 2024
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G7 pledges more Russia sanctions after virtual talks on Ukraine

G7 pledges more Russia sanctions after virtual talks on Ukraine
  • Finally, the G7 leaders demanded that Russia “fully clarify the circumstances” around the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny

ROME: The G7 countries pledged support for Ukraine and new sanctions on Russia after a virtual meeting Saturday on the second anniversary of Moscow’s invasion.
In a statement after the meeting, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also attended, the leaders vowed to “raise the cost” of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The G7 leaders didn’t make any public statement about further military aid to Ukraine, but urged “the approval of additional support to close Ukraine’s remaining budget gap for 2024.”
“We will continue to raise the cost of Russia’s war, degrade Russia’s sources of revenue and impede its efforts to build its war machine,” said the group, which includes the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada.
They called on Iran to stop helping Russia’s military and expressed concern about the transfer by Chinese businesses of weapon components, military equipment and dual-use materials to Moscow.
Finally, the G7 leaders demanded that Russia “fully clarify the circumstances” around the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, the most prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died in an Arctic prison last week.
After a week-long stand-off, his body was finally handed over to his mother on Saturday, according to his team.
Zelensky used the meeting to plead for more support for his embattled military forces.
“You know very well all we need to keep our sky protected, to strengthen our military on the land, and you know all we need to sustain and continue our success in the sea,” he said.
“And you know perfectly well that we need all this in time, and we count on you.”
The meeting was hosted from Kyiv by Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister of Italy, which holds the rotating G7 presidency.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen were also in Kyiv Saturday for the anniversary and attended the session in person.
It was the first meeting of the G7 under the Italian presidency.
Meloni flew to Poland, which borders Ukraine, and then took the train to Kyiv.
She explained her reasons for going to Kyiv in an interview with Italy’s Il Giornale newspaper published Saturday.
“Italy, Europe and the West must continue to back Kyiv because defending Ukraine means... keeping war at bay, protecting our national interests and preventing the international order based on rules from breaking down,” she said.
“We believe in Ukraine’s European future,” she said, referring to Kyiv’s frantic efforts to join the European Union.