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First ever cancer vaccine administered in Britain as part of global trial

Scientists are using the mRNA technology behind Covid jabs to create new vaccines that could treat and even cure cancer
Scientists are using the mRNA technology behind Covid jabs to create new vaccines that could treat and even cure cancer - E+

The first UK patients have received a revolutionary cancer vaccine as part of a global trial.

Scientists are using the mRNA technology behind Covid jabs to create new vaccines that could treat and even cure cancer.

The vaccine works by highlighting specific protein markers on the cells of a cancerous tumour to the immune system so that a patient’s own defences kick in and attack the cancer, which would otherwise go undetected.

Health officials said the NHS was “at the vanguard of trials of cancer vaccines”.

The trial is being led by scientists at Imperial College NHS Healthcare Trust and Imperial College London, which said it was the first in the UK to test the jabs, administering them to British patients at Hammersmith Hospital, in west London.

The study will assess the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine against lung cancer, skin cancer and other “solid tumours”, researchers said.

An 81-year-old man from Surrey with skin cancer was the first to receive the vaccine, dubbed mRNA-4359. After limited success with other treatments he took part in the trial and said “we have to change the fact that one in two people get cancer”.

Victoria Atkins, the health secretary, said the “ground-breaking development” could make a difference to “countless lives”.

“The vaccine has the potential to save even more lives while revolutionising the way in which we treat this terrible disease with therapies that are more effective and less toxic,” she said.

“It underlines our position as a life sciences superpower and our commitment to research and development,” she added.

Scientists ‘really excited’

The mRNA therapy is one of two main types of cancer vaccine being developed by scientists around the world, but this is the one they are “really excited about” because of the way it could revolutionise cancer treatment.

The other form of cancer vaccine being developed has to be “personalised” and requires taking genetic material from a person’s tumour to create a specific jab for them.

Experts hope that the mRNA cancer vaccines will serve as “ready made” and “off-the-shelf” jabs that can be given to multiple patients with a specific type of cancer, rather than having to be personalised to an individual.

It is expected that there will need to be different types of mRNA vaccines to treat different forms of cancer.

Unlike traditional vaccines given to prevent illness from contagious viruses such as measles and smallpox, they will be given to patients who already have cancer.

It is not possible to create a one-size-fits-all jab for cancer as each tumour varies by type and person.

However, it is hoped that by identifying common markers on cancer cells, the vaccines will be able to target and eradicate tumours and stop them from returning. People who have had cancer are more likely to get it again or become resistant to treatment.

Experts hope the treatment will evolve into a cure for cancer.

Dr David Pinato, consultant oncologist and scientist at Imperial College, told The Telegraph the mRNA vaccine was “more potent” at exposing the tumour and in the future could be used to prevent recurrence.

“We desperately need these to turn the tide against cancer. New mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies offer a new avenue for recruiting the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer,” he said.

“This research is still in the early stages and may be a number of years from being available to patients, but this trial is laying crucial groundwork that is moving us closer towards new therapies that are potentially less toxic and more precise.”

‘Vaccines could be revolutionary’

Prof Peter Johnson, the NHS national clinical director for cancer, said: “The NHS is at the vanguard of trials of cancer vaccines, which could be revolutionary if we are successful in vaccinating people against their own cancers to prevent them growing back after treatment.”

He said there was “pioneering work happening at hospitals up and down the country” and expected to see “thousands more patients taking part” in trials in the coming years.

The NHS last year announced a “Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad” in collaboration with German pharmaceutical firm BioNTech to fast-track trials of mRNA cancer vaccines, which are expected to start this year.

The early-phase Mobilize trial at Imperial is part of the Government’s partnership with another pharmaceutical company, Moderna, to develop mRNA cancer vaccines in the UK.

It will recruit several hundred participants from the UK, US and Australia, over the next three years.

Patients will receive either the vaccine alone, or alongside immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, and will be monitored for up to 34 months.