Pfizer, Moderna vaccines could vanquish Covid today, cancer tomorrow

The best news about the mRNA shots from BioNTech and Moderna is that the same technique could also defeat many other diseases.
Image: Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

The night is darkest just before dawn, they say. Dark it certainly is right now. The more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 coming out of the UK and South Africa will make the pandemic worse before mass vaccination can make it better.

But take another look at some of these new vaccines. And then contemplate the dawn to come — not just its first rays in the coming months but also the bright light of future years and decades. It looks increasingly plausible that the same weapons we’ll use to defeat Covid-19 can also vanquish even grimmer reapers — including cancer, which kills almost 10 million people a year.

The most promising Covid vaccines use nucleic acids called messenger RNA, or mRNA. One vaccine comes from the German firm BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer. The other is from the US company Moderna (its original spelling was ModeRNA, its ticker is MRNA). Another is on the way from CureVac, also based in Germany.

Ordinary vaccines tend to be inactivated or weakened viruses which, when injected into the body, stimulate an immune response that can later protect against the live pathogen. But the process of making such vaccines requires various chemicals and cell cultures. This takes time and provides opportunities for contamination.

mRNA vaccines don’t have these problems. They instruct the body itself to make the offending proteins — in this case, the ones that wrap around the viral RNA of SARS-CoV-2. The immune system then homes in on these antigens, practising for the day when the same proteins show up with the coronavirus attached.

Therein lies mRNA’s bigger promise: It can tell our cells to make whatever protein we want. That includes the antigens of many other diseases besides Covid-19.

In its day-to-day function, mRNA takes instructions from its molecular cousin, the DNA in our cell nuclei. Stretches of the genome are copied, which the mRNA carries into the cytoplasm, where little cellular factories called ribosomes use the information to churn out proteins.

BioNTech and Moderna shortcut this process, by skipping the whole fiddly business in the nucleus with the DNA. Instead, they first figure out what protein they want — for example, a spike on the coat around a virus. Then they look at the sequence of amino acids that makes this protein. From that, they derive the precise instructions the mRNA must give.

This process can be relatively fast, which is why it took less than a year to make the vaccines, a pace previously unimaginable. It’s also genetically safe — mRNA can’t go back into the nucleus and accidentally insert genes into our DNA.

Researchers since the 1970s have had a hunch that you can use this technique to fight all sorts of maladies. But as usual in science, you need huge amounts of money, time and patience to sort out all the intermediary problems. After a decade of enthusiasm, mRNA became academically unfashionable in the 1990s. Progress seemed halting. The main obstacle was that injecting mRNA into animals often caused fatal inflammation.

Enter Katalin Kariko — a Hungarian scientist who immigrated to the US in the 1980s and has heroically devoted her entire career to mRNA, through its ups and downs. In the 1990s, she lost her funding, was demoted, had her salary cut and suffered other setbacks. But she stuck with it. And then, after battling cancer herself, she made the crucial breakthrough.

In the 2000s, she and her research partner realised that swapping out uridine, one of mRNA’s “letters,” avoided causing inflammation without otherwise compromising the code. The mice stayed alive.

Her study was read by a scientist at Stanford University, Derrick Rossi, who later co-founded Moderna. It also came to the attention of Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, two oncologists who are husband and wife and co-founded BioNTech. They licensed Kariko’s technology and hired her. From the start, they were most interested in curing cancer.

Today’s weapons against cancer will one day seem as primitive an idea as flint axes in a surgery room. To kill a malignant tumour, you generally zap it with radiation or chemicals, damaging lots of other tissue in the process.

The better way to fight cancer, Sahin and Tureci realised, is to treat each tumour as genetically unique and to train the immune systems of individual patients against that specific enemy. A perfect job for mRNA. You find the antigen, get its fingerprint, reverse-engineer the cellular instructions to target the culprit and let the body do the rest.

Take a look at the pipelines of Moderna and BioNTech. They include drug trials for treating cancers of the breast, prostate, skin, pancreas, brain, lung and other tissues, as well as vaccines against everything from influenza to Zika and rabies. The prospects appear good.

Progress, admittedly, has been slow. Part of the explanation Sahin and Tureci give is that investors in this sector must put up oodles of capital and then wait for more than a decade, first for the trials, then for regulatory approvals. In the past, too few were in the mood.

Covid-19, fingers crossed, may turbo-charge all these processes. The pandemic has led to a grand debut of mRNA vaccines and their definitive proof of concept. Already, there are murmurs about a Nobel Prize for Kariko. Henceforth, mRNA will have no problems getting money, attention or enthusiasm — from investors, regulators and policymakers.

That doesn’t mean the last stretch will be easy. But in this dark hour, it’s permissible to bask in the light that’s dawning.

© 2021 Bloomberg


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Absolutely fascinating. Best of luck to all these pioneers.
They are the true heroes !!

I think you mean best of luck to -US-.

We are all the guinea pigs in this global experiment, and will collectively live with any unexpected negative consequences of this live gene editing. So, indeed, good luck to us all.

Just do not take the vaccine — then you are safe ne !!

There have not been trials long enough to proove long term safety. I bet you will be expected to sign an indemnity when you get the vaccine, meaning no recourse if anything goes wrong. And,if you develop some Auto Immune/ other side effect, are you going to try and sue the likes of these huge pharmaceutical giants or the Govt? They have tried to make a corona/SARS vaccine since 2002, with no success. Do a search and see what happened to the animals in the trials!They are messing with mRNA, the very essence of our DNA being. I would like longer trials!!
Good luck to you brave citizens who just accept the vaccine as a “cure” for Covid 19. I shall wait and see.
Yes, I am in the medical field!

The obtuse promotion of any vaccine that does not provide immunity and claims only to address symptoms gives a clue to the underlying reason for extending the fiction of immunity from a vaccination that is nothing more than an expensive and high-risk treatment. Check the massive price explosion of vaccine shares, especially Moderna (= Mode RNA) with its totally experimental and umproven interference with the DNA core of life itself.
There are proven treatments for Covid that have 100% prevented death from the virus at small cost. These have been ignored, shunned and even condemned. What more evidence do we need to know that we are all being not simply conned but placed in harms way for the benefit of a few greedy power hungry, selfish, dangerous and mentally ill billionaire individuals and their assigns.
As for the prevention measures just look at the ongoing operation of the taxi industry. You can do anything in a taxi. Hold religious services, meet with family, have any kind of meeting. Now the virus transmits easily by breathing. The virus is so small that a simple mask cannot even slow it down. Come on now this is not difficult to grasp.

I am by no means one of those who believe in conspiracy theories, such as the alleged link between autism and vaccines. My kids received all their shots.

I am, however, quite a skeptic about this one. This is like changing random bytes of the Windows operating system’s files on your computer, and holding thumbs that it all still works afterwards. The law of unintended consequences all too often comes back to bite you.

No, it’s not.

I was also wary about these mRNA vaccines, simply because they are so new (in fact, given the choice, I’d still probably choose a less cutting-edge vaccine).

Nonetheless, my fears were reduced when I realised that the viruses themselves are doing something very similar (or in the case of viruses like HIV, worse since they actually alter DNA).

Innovative biology wins the day and the future – congratulations!

I’m constantly amazed by the opinions and comments not only here but all over the online media from people who have a connected keyboard, but although they have no clue as to how their tapping the keys gets onto an international website via satellite technology using quantum mechanics and the nano-technology used to create the instrument are experts on microbiology.

If you really want to understand the way technology and science are changing they way we live, get a free email from

The problems is that some of us who actually have personal experience with postgraduate scientific research may not have great faith in it not being driven more by personal self interest and economic pragmatism than the scientific method.

So much of the rhetoric surrounding the vaccination being developed for Covid-19 is emotional rather than rational. How many people who express these opinions have actually checked the facts?
Where would we be without the polio and measles vaccines? As time goes by, so more and more knowledge is discovered.
For my buck, i’ll be first in line. I’ve seen too many of my friends seriously ill and a number who have died. According to the families it is a dreadful way to die, struggling to breathe. It is like drowning slowly.
And the continuing infection will kill more…and more…and more.
If you want to read a rational article

End of comments.



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