First Melanoma Patient Gets mRNA Cancer Vaccine From Medical Company That Cracked COVID; How Does mRNA Work?

Published Jun 24, 2021

Chris Spargo

A promising new cancer vaccine that could help destroy tumors in patients with melanoma is now being administered in a phase 2 trial from the medical company that successfully developed a COVID vaccine with Pfizer, and it’s using the same mRNA technology.

BioNTech announced the start of a trial evaluating the therapeutic cancer vaccine candidate BNT111 for use in patients with  Stage III or IV melanoma whose tumors are not able to be surgically removed. The trial includes 120 participants from Europe, the United States and Australia.

The vaccine will aim to help break down the tumors in those already diagnosed with cancer, with the hope being that the mRNA might be able to completely wipe out some of these tumors.

This drug is similar to the COVID vaccine in that it uses mRNA as a conduit. In a cancer vaccine, there are strands of RNA with messages urging the production of more T cells to fight against the tumor and its antigens. The mRNA carries those strands into the cell where production starts and continues until the T cells outnumber the antigens from the tumors, and cause it to breakdown into nothing.

The study will evaluate the effectiveness of BNT111 on its own and when taken with another skin cancer drug developed by BioNTech, Libtayo. Some patients will get both drugs, while others will only receive one of the two. This comes after a successful phase 1 trial to determine the tolerability of BNT111 in participants.

BioNTech says that this is just one of three potential cancer vaccines they are moving into phase 2 testing this year. The company is also preparing to determine the effectiveness of BNT113 in treating patients with head and/or neck cancer caused by HPV as well as BNT122, another vaccine targeting melanomas.

All three vaccines were in development before the start of the COVID pandemic. The company has long been interested in exploring possible uses for mRNA in fighting disease and was able to amp up its efforts in 2014 with the hiring of  Katalin Karikó.  The Hungarian biochemist – who pioneered the therapeutic use of mRNA –  had been struggling to obtain funding or gain even general interest from her mostly male peers for decades when she left the world of academia to take a job at BioNTech. She has since published research in how mRNA can be used to fight everything from the Zika virus and tumors to COVID-19.

Related: From COVID-19 To Cancer, Could mRNA Carry The Answer?

“Our vision is to harness the power of the immune system against cancer and infectious diseases. We were able to demonstrate the potential of mRNA vaccines in addressing COVID-19. We must not forget, that cancer is also a global health threat, even worse than the current pandemic,“ said Dr. Özlem Türeci, co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, said in a statement obtained by Survivor Net.

“BNT111 has already shown a favorable safety profile and encouraging preliminary results in early clinical evaluation. With the start of patient treatment in our Phase 2 trial, we are encouraged to continue on our initial path to realize the potential of mRNA vaccines for cancer patients.”

There are similar studies going on at a number of different companies, including Moderna. That company has been testing a drug that targets the specific antigens expressing in each patient.

Related: Actor Tom Arnold Describes ‘Popping’ and Draining His Own Wounds after Skin Cancer Surgery; A Leading Expert Says ‘NO’

What is mRNA?

mRNA is crucial to carrying out the functions of your genes. Here’s how it works. Your genes are made of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Many of your genes carry instructions in their DNA for making a protein. Proteins perform the functions of your cells. Inside the nucleus of your cells, the information in your DNA is transferred into mRNA. The messenger molecule then carries this information from the cell’s nucleus to another part of the cell called cytoplasm. In the cytoplasm, the information is read and the appropriate protein is produced. Proteins carry out all the functions of the body.

What Are the Symptoms of Melanoma?

The most important thing to look out for when it comes to finding melanoma is a new spot on your skin, or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or color, SurvivorNet’s medical experts say. The spot will likely also look different from all of the other spots on your skin (doctors call this the “ugly duckling sign”).

When you check your skin, use the acronym ABCDE as your guide:

  • Asymmetrical moles: If you drew a line straight down the center of the mole, would the sides match?
  • Borders: Is the mole irregular or jagged?
  • Colors: Are there multiple distinct colors in the mole?
  • Diameter: Is the mole larger than 6 millimeters (mm), about the size of a pencil head eraser?
  • Evolution: Has the mole’s color, shape, or size changed over time?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, our experts say it’s time to see your dermatologist for a skin check.

Other red flags to watch for are:

  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Color that spreads from the border of a spot to the skin around it
  • Redness or swelling that goes beyond the area of a mole
  • Itchiness, tenderness, or pain
  • A change in the way the surface of a mole looks
  • Scaliness, oozing, or blood


Learn more about SurvivorNet's rigorous medical review process.

Chris is a senior reporter at SurvivorNet. Read More