Information on messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines is frequently in the news due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, since mRNA technology is used in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. Long before the start of the pandemic, however, researchers have been trying to use this technology to treat cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. It is also the third most common cancer worldwide. The standard treatment for many colorectal cancer patients is surgery, but this can leave some cancer cells undetected in the body. Cancer cells left behind can shed DNA into the bloodstream, known as circulating tumor DNA, or ctDNA. ctDNA detection after surgery treatment is associated with higher rates of cancer recurrence. A clinical trial led by Van Morris, M.D. and Scott Kopetz, M.D., Ph.D. follows high risk patients with stage II or stage III colorectal cancer who test positive for ctDNA after surgery.

During his procedure, tissue from the tumor removed during surgery is sent to a specialized lab and tested to find genetic mutations in the patient’s own DNA that lead to cancer growth. A targeted mRNA vaccine is then created based on a prioritized list of the mutations found. In this way, each patient receives a personalized mRNA vaccine based on their individual mutated DNA test results. Once administered, the mRNA encodes the instructions for the patient’s cells to produce protein fragments based off the identified mutations. Cells present these fragments as foreign to the body’s immune cells. The immune system can then search for other cells with mutated proteins and destroy any circulating tumor cells, thus eradicating the cancer for good. This clinical trial is currently in Phase II and is estimated to be completed in July 2027.

These clinical trials are just one of many research studies involving the use of mRNA to treat cancer. In another study, researchers tested a way to stabilize mRNA and allow for slow release using hydrogels. One of the challenges in using mRNA technology to treat disease is that mRNA deteriorates quickly in the body due to exposure to degrading enzymes. With this newly developed method, mice with melanoma were given a treatment and experienced both reductions in tumor size, as well as obstruction of metastasis in lung tissue after treatment with the mRNA vaccine. With these promising results, the future of this type of treatment would allow therapies to last over the course of 30 days.

Additionally, in a separate study, a clinical trial in humans found success in treating melanoma patients with personalized mRNA vaccines. To date, mRNA vaccines have been applied to treat aggressive, less accessible and metastatic solid tumors, including non-small cell lung cancers, colorectal carcinoma, melanoma, and others.

There is an unending need for safe and effective cancer treatment, and mRNA technology allows for personalized treatment specifically designed for each patient. There is great headway in this field and the future looks hopeful for those that can benefit from this type of targeted therapy.

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