MIT Technology Review recently asked Bill Gates to come up with a list of 2019’s inventions that will “change the world for the better.” Although Gates had a hard time narrowing down his list, he did come up with the top breakthrough technologies he believes will make a huge difference in the years to come. Featured on his list is a new, personalized, vaccine designed to trigger the immune system and destroy cancer.
What exactly is a cancer vaccine?
Many people hear “cancer vaccine” and get the wrong idea about what this treatment actually does. The key word to remember here is “treatment.” The vaccine is not given to all patients as a way to prevent cancer — rather, it is a cancer treatment, called a “vaccine” since it does stimulate the immune system.
The vaccine is a form of immunotherapy, a kind of cancer treatment that stimulates the body’s own powerful immune system to fight disease. Immunotherapy treatments have been very successful at treating many different kinds of cancer.
The vaccine treatment works by teaching the immune system to eliminate cancer cells only — not healthy cells — by revealing mutations that are unique to each tumor. When the body’s innate defense system is used to target tumor cells only, the patient’s healthy cells remain in tact. This is different from conventional treatments like chemotherapy because it typically destroys all of a patients cells, weakening their entire body. The treatment will likely also be more effective, as it could identify any leftover cancer cells that remain after initial treatment.
When will cancer vaccines be available?
Researchers are still developing the vaccine treatment, but they are close to making the first personalized vaccine available to the public. The idea for this treatment began back in 2008, after the Human Genome Project gave way to a published sequence of a cancerous tumor cell. Scientists then started comparing tumor DNA cells with DNA from healthy cells, which showed just how unique cancer is. According to these studies, cancer cells are made up of hundreds and thousands of particular mutations unique to teach tumor.
A German startup company named BioNTech used this research and came up with their own hypothesis that a vaccine could potentially help to destroy cancerous cells. If the vaccine contained copies of the tumor’s mutations, it could possibly recruit the body’s immune system to create T cells designed specifically to find and destroy all of the cancerous cells.
BioNTech began testing this vaccine in December of 2017, along with Genentech. The trial is still going on, and is working with 10 solid cancers. They hope to obtain nearly 600 patients from all areas around the world.