• Otávio Santiago

New cancer treatments may be on the horizon—thanks to mRNA vaccines

Molly Cassidy was studying for the Arizona bar exam in February 2019 when she felt an excruciating pain in her ear. The pain eventually radiated down through her jaw, leading her to discover a bump under her tongue. “I had several doctors tell me it was stress-related because I was studying for the bar and I had a 10-month-old son,” recalls Cassidy, who also has a Ph.D. in education. After continuing to seek medical care, she found out that she had an aggressive form of head and neck cancer that required intensive treatment.

After doctors removed part of her tongue along with 35 lymph nodes, Cassidy went through 35 sessions of radiation concurrent with three cycles of chemotherapy. Ten days after she completed treatment, Cassidy noticed a marble-like lump on her collarbone. The cancer had returned—and with a vengeance: It had spread throughout her neck and to her lungs. “By that point, I was really out of options because the other treatments hadn’t worked,” says Cassidy, now 38, who lives in Tucson. “In the summer of 2019, I was told my cancer was very severe and to get my affairs in order. I even planned my funeral.”

When doctors removed the tumor from her collarbone, they told her that she might be eligible to join a clinical trial at the University of Arizona Cancer Center that was testing an mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccine—similar technology to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines—in combination with an immunotherapy drug to treat colorectal and head and neck cancers. Whereas the COVID-19 vaccines are preventative, mRNA vaccines for cancer are therapeutic, and Cassidy jumped at the opportunity to participate. “I was at the right place at the right time for this clinical trial,” she says.

Back when people first heard about Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, the mRNA technology behind them sounded like the stuff of science fiction. But while the mRNA approach seems revolutionary, long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, researchers had been developing mRNA vaccines to fight cancer, autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, and to protect against other infectious diseases, such as the respiratory syncytial virus. “It’s not a new idea: What COVID has shown us is that mRNA vaccines can be an efficacious and safe technology for millions of people,” says Daniel Anderson, a leader in the field of nanotherapeutics and biomaterials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

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