Cancer vaccines could be ready for use by 2030, say BioNTech founders

Lessons from COVID vaccine development and approval can aid the process.
Ameya Paleja
Vaccine for cancer stock photo.
Vaccine for cancer stock photo.


According to Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, the founders of the German company BioNTech, mRNA vaccines that can help target cancer could be ready for use before the end of this decade, The Guardian has reported. The duo made this remark during their interview with BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.

Founded in 2008, BioNTech has been working on mRNA technology to develop vaccines since its inception. In 2018, the company tied up with U.S. pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer inc., to develop influenza vaccines based on its technology. French pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, invested twice to gain access to its pipeline of cancer products.

BioNTech's big pivot

In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, BioNTech pivoted its focus and used its technological know-how to make a vaccine against the coronavirus. Before the year ended, BioNTech's BNT162b2 candidate demonstrated 91 percent efficacy in preventing the infection in those vaccinated with two doses. It was later granted emergency use authorization (EUA) in the U.K. and then in the U.S.

BioNTech's vaccine uses mRNA, a type of nucleic acid in the cells, to send instructions to call, which it uses to make proteins. In the case of COVID, the vaccine sent instructions to make the spike protein on the envelope of the coronavirus, which was detected by the immune cells in the body to launch a response against the invading virus.

Similarly, the technology can be used to train the immune cells to identify protein present in cancerous cells and then destroy them. BioNTech already has multiple cancer vaccine candidates in clinical trials and is hopeful that its COVID success will aid its cancer work as well.

BioNTech's pipeline of vaccines is broad and includes cancers of the bowel, skin, lung, head and neck, prostate, and ovaries. Some of the vaccines are in Phase 2 trials currently, and Özlem Türeci, BioNTech's chief medical officer, is hopeful that regulators can use the same processes used for the COVID vaccine to authorize cancer vaccines as well. Doing so would ensure that cancer vaccines can be made available to patients before 2030.

Waning interest in COVID vaccines

A scientist who has spent over 20 years on the technology, Türeci isn't certain that her company would have a cure for cancer but is hopeful that breakthroughs made in the area can be used to advance the cause.

With the coronavirus now becoming endemic, people, as well as governments, are no longer interested in vaccines the way they were in 2021. According to a Financial Times report, vaccine makers such as BioNTech and Moderna are expected to see a sharp drop in their revenues by as much as 33 percent over the next two years as a result of the waning interest.

In the U.S., the government will stop buying COVID shots next year, and jabs will be available in the private market. The average price of the jab is expected to double next year, and even though companies may charge up to $100 per shot, they will not be able to maintain the revenues highs the companies saw in the pandemic years.

With only their COVID vaccines commercialized so far, both BioNTech and Moderna are looking at their pipeline products to start bringing in revenues in the near future. Last week, Interesting Engineering reported how Moderna was tying up with Merck for its cancer vaccine.

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