A researcher holds a vaccine vial and syringe.

An mRNA vaccine to treat pancreatic cancer

By Sharon Reynolds, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most common type of pancreatic cancer, is one of the deadliest cancer types. Despite modern therapies, only about 12% of people diagnosed with this cancer will be alive five years after treatment.

Immunotherapies—drugs that help the body’s immune system attack tumors—have revolutionized the treatment of many tumor types. But to date, they have proven ineffective in PDAC. Whether pancreatic cancer cells produce neoantigens—proteins that can be effectively targeted by the immune system—hasn’t been clear.

An NIH-funded research team led by Dr. Vinod Balachandran from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) have been developing a personalized mRNA cancer-treatment vaccine approach. It is designed to help immune cells recognize specific neoantigens on patients’ pancreatic cancer cells. Results from a small clinical trial of their experimental treatment were published on May 10, 2023, in Nature.

After surgery to remove PDAC, the team sent tumor samples from 19 people to partners at BioNTech, the company that produced one of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. BioNTech performed gene sequencing on the tumors to find proteins that might trigger an immune response. They then used that information to create a personalized mRNA vaccine for each patient. Each vaccine targeted up to 20 neoantigens. Read more …