UK Cancer Vaccine Launchpad
Dr Lennard Lee, Academic Medical Oncologist, University of Oxford
The United Kingdom has announced plans for a Cancer Vaccine Launchpad, building on lessons learnt during the pandemic. Cancer vaccines help stimulate the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells. If successful, it would save tens of millions of lives from cancer globally.
The United Kingdom’s Department of Health and Social care said the UK cancer vaccine launchpad will deliver 10,000 of these personalised therapies to UK patients. They said trials for cancer vaccines will start as early as September 2023.
The United Kingdom has invested significantly in its life science sector as part of the coronavirus pandemic. Institutions have been upgraded, staff have been upskilled and processes transformed. Our trials in the UK are hyper-accelerated. UK science is delivering trials in a faster and more efficient fashion than ever before. It is therefore no surprise that one of the biggest mRNA vaccine companies in the world, BioNTech, has acknowledged the strength of our single National Healthcare System and our Life sciences sector and decided to enter this landmark partnership.
Levering the strengths of our NHS and research infrastructure, the Oxford-Astrazeneca coronavirus vaccine trials recruited 32,000 people in just 10 months. We also see similar UK pandemic trials delivering fast results, benefiting thousands of patients. The Recovery study that identifies new treatments for hospitalised COVID-19 patients recruited 47,000 patients in 12 months, the Panoramic study recruited 4,7 00 patients in 3 months, and the UK Falcon Moonshot study which showed that lateral flow tests can identified the most infectious people with COVID-19 recruited 1,000 patients in 36 days.
The development of cancer vaccine has been transformed in recent years as a result of mRNA vaccine technology. mRNA vaccines contain the genetic blueprint required to stimulate the immune system. It provides benefits in terms of manufacturing and delivery. Most of us have received a mRNA product, from either the Moderna or Pfizer-biontech coronavirus vaccines. Cancer vaccines will work in a similar way, but will be personalised to the individual.
BioNTech’s cancer vaccine pipeline is wide and exciting, and includes a vaccine, BNT122, that is targeted directly at the individual’s cancer. Their cancer vaccine is designed based on the specific genetic abnormalities or mutations that their cancer possesses. This is a sensible proposal as no two cancers are exactly the same. Phase 1 safety data from BioNTech shows that the drug is safe for use and for larger trials. However, to find the genetic abnormalities, tumours will need to undergo comprehensive genomic sequencing, looking at mutation and cancer gene expression.
Genomic sequencing is not yet part of UK cancer care, though many centres have advocated that this it should be a standard of care diagnostic test. However, this is not going to be an issue for the UK Cancer vaccine launchpad, as the UK government has pledged expertise from Genomics England, our national research engine for genomics development.
These cancer vaccine trials are therefore the pivotal first step to prove that it is possible to reduce the risk of cancer returning and test their potential to provide long term protection from cancer. The data from these initial 10,000 cancer patients will be crucial. Every year, nearly 400,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. However, if cancer vaccine technology development follows coronavirus vaccine development timescales, as soon as the trials are completed, cancer vaccines might be made available across the NHS.
However, there is some reason to remain a little cautious. The UK only succeeded in hyper-accelerating coronavirus vaccine development through effective partnership and the singular focus of our country on a life sciences mission. Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine trials pulled leading experts together from across the country to work in partnership with a commercial partner. This was the secret recipe required to make it a success and benefit millions of people around the world. The path is well trodden in the United Kingdom but getting to the destination requires a similar path is followed. Finally, the NHS is currently being impacted by staff strikes and marked challenges in A&Es across the country. There will be a need for some commitment from cancer centres to provide opportunities for their cancer patients to enter trials, and for the NHS leadership to remain committed. This cannot be taken for granted.
Nevertheless, with the announcement of the UK Cancer vaccine launchpad, our country has sent a strong signal to those affected by cancer. The country possesses capabilities in running hyper-accelerated trials. The Life Sciences sector has expertise in developing cancer vaccines, like our Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine Our NHS has the capability to continue to lead on the genomic revolution and help cancer patients. There is clearly a lot of potential here with the UK Cancer Vaccine Launchpad. 2023 has gone off to an excellent start with an incredible gift from the United Kingdom signalling ambition, capabilities, and a willing to transform patient care, starting with those affected by cancer.
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