Indo-American Doctor Leads Use of mRNA Vaccines beyond Covid

NEW YORK: In 2017, Vinod Balachandran published a paper in the science journal Nature explaining an interesting phenomenon that he had discovered in a tiny number of pancreatic cancer survivors. T-cells circulating in their blood had developed the ability to identify, remember and fight back against proteins in the deadly tumours.

The surgeon, from New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, likened it to “auto-vaccination”. Balachandran described how actual vaccines using messenger RNA molecules could be used to replicate the response and give more patients the ability to defend themselves against the often fatal tumours.

His research caught the eye of a then little-known scientist, Ugur Sahin, chief executive of German biotechnology company BioNTech, who was so intrigued by the findings that he invited Balachandran’s team to Mainz. Over dinner at Heiliggeist, a nearly 800-year-old church-turned-restaurant on the banks of the river Rhine, and joined by scientists from Swiss pharmaceutical company Genentech, the group discussed the potential of mRNA vaccines to treat pancreatic cancer.

“It was beautiful,” says Balachandran about the restaurant that once served as a hospital, and the conversation: “The purpose and the mission was common between us.”

Survival rates among pancreatic cancer patients are low. Only 10 per cent survive longer than five years, according to the American Cancer Society, making it one of the deadliest forms of the disease. By comparison, 90 per cent of breast cancer patients survive over the same period of time.

Two years of research followed the dinner and in December 2019, 20 patients were enrolled in the first clinical trial assessing mRNA vaccines in pancreatic cancer sufferers. With the world about to learn of a novel coronavirus, BioNTech and others would soon pivot their mRNA work to create a vaccine against Covid-19.

While the mRNA vaccines made by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna have become synonymous with helping to dramatically reduce deaths from Covid-19, Balachandran is among a growing group of scientists using the medical technology to investigate treatments for other illnesses.

Proponents of mRNA argue that combating Covid-19 is just the start and that its wider adoption heralds a revolution in modern medicine. Cures for some forms of cancer are among several areas being explored. Pharmaceutical companies are now turning their attention to the power of mRNA to tackle a range of illnesses from flu to heart disease and HIV. Very early vaccine trials are also under way for the Zika virus, yellow fever and rare diseases such as methylmalonic acidemia, where the body is unable to break down proteins.

“Five years ago there was hesitation from the larger companies about investing in this space,” says Michael Choy, head of life sciences at Boston Consulting Group. “Having so many people receive the mRNA product [for Covid] has made a big difference.” as a unique circumstance”. –