Can mRNA vaccines be used in cancer care?

May 04, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

We’ve all witnessed the remarkable effectiveness of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against the coronavirus.

This new type of vaccine doesn’t use a weakened or dead virus to teach our cells how to fight off disease, like many vaccines do.

Instead, it contains a portion of mRNA that sends the body’s cells instructions to make a harmless piece of spike protein (the button on the surface of the coronavirus). The mRNA is quickly destroyed in the cell shortly after translation.

When human immune cells detect the spike protein, they begin mounting a defense, creating antibodies against the spike proteins until all of them have been destroyed.

Our immune system is then equipped to fight off the coronavirus if exposed, without actually having been infected.

The Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna mRNA 1273 are mRNA vaccines.

While this coronavirus mRNA vaccine is new to us, it has been studied by scientists for decades, and was only authorized after meeting rigorous scientific standards for safety. It was able to be manufactured more quickly than previous vaccines due to a worldwide urgency to combat a global pandemic.

The mRNA technology is so promising that researchers are looking at ways to use mRNA vaccines to fight another insidious human enemy: cancer.

Scientists have already used mRNA to teach the immune system to target certain cancer cells.

Cancer immunotherapies aim to help the immune system fight off cancer cells, just like it would attack intruders like viruses.

The immune system has a more difficult time fighting off cancer cells because cancer starts in normal, healthy cells and don’t always appear to be obviously foreign.

Though not as widely used as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, immunotherapy has been approved to treat many types of cancer. Typically given intravenously (through an IV), orally, as a topical cream or through a catheter, the main types of immunotherapy now being used to treat cancer include:

  • Monoclonal antibodies. These are man-made versions of immune system proteins. Antibodies can be very useful in treating cancer because they can be designed to attack a very specific part of a cancer cell.
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs basically take the ‘brakes’ off the immune system, which helps it recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • Cancer vaccines. Vaccines are substances put into the body to start an immune response against certain diseases. Scientists are working on ways to engineer mRNA vaccines to fight specific cancers.
  • Non-specific immunotherapies. These treatments boost the immune system in a general way but can still help the immune system attack cancer cells.

Scientists continue to study mRNA treatments for several types of cancer.

Since the coronavirus mRNA vaccine was developed so quickly, how long will it take to develop a vaccine for cancer? It could be a while longer, though experts say the widespread success of the coronavirus vaccine will help move research and development forward more quickly.

This blog was reviewed by Alexander Hantel, M.D., a medical oncologist and System Medical Director at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

For the latest updates on the COVID-19 vaccine, please check

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The information in this article may change at any time due to the changing landscape of this pandemic. Read the latest on COVID-19.

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