A new vaccine using the same mRNA technology as the Pfizer jab against COVID-19 could be a breakthrough in the fight against pancreatic cancer.
In a promising early study conducted by German company BioNTech — which partnered with Pfizer to develop the lifesaving COVID shot — half of the patients remained cancer-free 18 months after having their tumors removed and receiving the jabs.
The groundbreaking trial — led by Dr. Vinod Balachandran at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan — presented its promising results at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago on Sunday.
Doctors said the results showed that the vaccine could train the immune system to kill pancreatic cancer cells by boosting immune cells that target tumors.
The trial was carried out on 16 patients, each of whom was given eight doses of the individualized vaccine made using the mRNA genetic code found in each of their tumors.
The patients received their jabs after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor.
Results showed the jab produced a T cell response in eight out of the 16 patients, who remained cancer-free throughout the duration of the trial.
The remaining patients who did not respond to the vaccine either died or saw their cancer return.
“Unlike some of the other immunotherapies, these mRNA vaccines do appear to have the ability to stimulate immune responses in pancreatic cancer patients,” Balachandran said of the promising preliminary results.
“So we’re very excited about that, and the early results that suggest that if you have an immune response, you may have a better outcome.”
Pancreatic cancer is among the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the US, with 90 percent of patients dying within two years of their diagnosis, BioNTech noted.
The German biotech company heralded the early trial as “encouraging.”
“We are committed to take up this challenge by leveraging our long-standing research in cancer vaccinology and are trying to break new ground in the treatment of such hard-to-treat tumors,” BioNTech co-founder and chief medical officer Prof. Özlem Tureci said.
“The results of this Phase 1 study are encouraging. We look forward to further evaluating these early results in a larger randomized study,” he added.
Balachandran added the results should be welcome news for other cancer patients too.
“Pancreatic cancer has been the poster child for a cancer that is very difficult to treat with traditional chemotherapy and immunotherapies,” he said.
“Any ability to treat pancreatic cancer with a new therapy hopefully paves the way for us to now test [mRNA cancer vaccines] more broadly.”
The hopeful results come as another exciting study conducted on 18 rectal cancer patients had a 100 percent success rate, according to a paper published Sunday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In addition to not needing further treatment to eradicate the disease, there were no instances of a recurrence of cancer in the patients during follow-up appointments from six to 25 months after the trial ended.
But while encouraging, doctors noted that the study is small and the results would need to be replicated.