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Feature Cancer

When will the world get cancer vaccines?

BMJ 2023; 380 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o3041 (Published 06 January 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:o3041
  1. Chris Baraniuk, freelance journalist
  1. Belfast
  1. chrisbaraniuk{at}gmail.com

Vaccines against cancer have been a dream for decades, but the mRNA revolution has sparked new hope. Chris Baraniuk looks at what’s in the pipeline—and the challenges that remain

On 6 January 2023 the UK government announced that it was partnering with BioNTech, the company that created the first covid-19 mRNA vaccine, to enrol as many as 10 000 patients in trials of a new mRNA cancer vaccine.1

Iain Foulkes, speaking for Cancer Research UK, told BBC News that “mRNA vaccines are one of the most exciting research developments to come out of the pandemic, and there are strong hints that they could become powerful treatment options for cancer.” For BioNTech, it’s a huge step forward considering the company was founded nearly 15 years ago to develop mRNA therapies for cancer.

Cancer kills considerably more people worldwide each year than covid-19 does, according to World Health Organization figures. Countless companies and research institutions around the world have long targeted cancer vaccines—a research goal since at least the 1890s2—but success at scale has remained frustratingly elusive. Just one purpose made, tumour antigen based cancer vaccine (see box) has been adopted in the clinic. Bacillus Calmette-Guérin vaccine, or BCG, is also used as an immune stimulant in early stage bladder cancer, but on the whole the world is still waiting for cancer jabs to become a reality.

Primarily, this is because the concept of a vaccine and that of cancer itself are somewhat at odds. Vaccines rest on a simple premise: if you can get people’s bodies to produce an antigen—say, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein—you can train immune systems in how to fight the invader off. But, says Alan Parker, professor of translational virotherapies and head of the section of solid cancers at Cardiff University, “Cancer is a disease that …

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