Since the beginning of the study, in December 2019, BioNTech has shortened the process to under six weeks, said Dr. Ugur Sahin, a co-founder of the company, who worked on the study. Eventually, the company intends to be able to make cancer vaccines in four weeks.
And since it first began testing the vaccines about a decade ago, BioNTech has lowered the cost from roughly $350,000 per dose to less than $100,000 by automating parts of production, Dr. Sahin said.
A personalized mRNA cancer vaccine developed by Moderna and Merck reduced the risk of relapse in patients who had surgery for melanoma, a type of skin cancer, the companies announced last month. But the latest study set the bar higher by targeting pancreatic cancer, which is thought to have fewer of the genetic changes that would make it ripe for vaccine treatments.
In patients who did not appear to respond to the vaccine, the cancer tended to return around 13 months after surgery. Patients who did respond, though, showed no signs of relapse during the roughly 18 months they were tracked.
Intriguingly, one patient showed evidence of a vaccine-activated immune response in the liver after an unusual growth developed there. The growth later disappeared in imaging tests.
“It’s anecdotal, but it’s nice confirmatory data that the vaccine can get into these other tumor regions,” said Dr. Nina Bhardwaj, who studies cancer vaccines at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Scientists have struggled for decades to create cancer vaccines, in part because they trained the immune system on proteins found on tumors and normal cells alike.
Tailoring vaccines to mutated proteins found only on cancer cells, though, potentially helped provoke stronger immune responses and opened new avenues for treating any cancer patient, said Ira Mellman, vice president of cancer immunology at Genentech, which developed the pancreatic cancer vaccine with BioNTech.
“Just establishing the proof of concept that vaccines in cancer can actually do something after, I don’t know, thirty years of failure is probably not a bad thing,” Dr. Mellman said. “We’ll start with that.”