vaccines could make cancer ‘a thing of the past’ one day, says pioneering scientist

© Sharon L Taffet Prof Drew Weissman - Sharon L Taffet

Cancer could one day be eradicated in the same way as smallpox through the use of vaccines, the scientist who paved the way for the Pfizer Covid jab has said.

Drew Weissman, whose pioneering work on vaccine technology has made him a favourite for a future Nobel Prize, said it was possible that cancer could eventually become "a thing of the past".

The breakthrough made by Prof Weissman and his team, which has led to an entirely new method of vaccine manufacture, is already being applied to other illnesses – but he said "we've got a way to go" before anyone could be sure whether a vaccine against all cancers was possible.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna Covid jabs are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology developed by Prof Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, and the same method is already being used to develop potential vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis, peanut allergies and other illnesses including cancer.

Existing cancer vaccines, such as the HPV jab given to children in the UK, protect the body against viruses that cause cancer – but mRNA technology has the potential for more widespread use.

Prof Weissman said: "People have been working on cancer vaccines for 30-plus years, and with each advancement of technology we get better."

vaccines could make cancer ‘a thing of the past’ one day, says pioneering scientist

© Provided by The Telegraph How scientists cracked mRNA vaccines

BioNTech, the German company that developed the Pfizer vaccine, has already begun trials of personalised vaccines for a handful of cancers, though they are used to treat cancer rather than prevent it by employing a genetic code to instruct the body to launch a specific immune response.

"We are getting better, but we've got a way to go," said Prof Weissman. "I hope we get to the point where cancer is a thing of the past, but we are not close at the moment."

However, one cancer breakthrough which is much closer is in treating leukaemia using T-cells, a type of white blood cell.

Existing T-cell therapies cost up to £500,000 per patient because T-cells are extracted from the blood then genetically engineered and multiplied in a laboratory over the course of several weeks before being injected back into the bloodstream.

Prof Weissman is developing a technique that would cut out the need for the lengthy preparatory work and cost "probably a few hundred dollars".

He is in London to address a conference of private philanthropists to raise money for charities that support the development of Covid vaccine plants in Africa and Asia.

He said it was likely to take "at least another year" to build the regional hubs needed to manufacture enough jabs for the whole world – 5.8 billion doses have so far been administered, but in Africa almost 90 per cent of people have not had their first jab.

But if a vaccine-resistant variant of the virus comes along, "we have to start over and that would delay things".

For parents wavering over vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds against Covid, Prof Weissman had a simple message.

"People say Covid doesn't kill kids. That isn't true," he said. "I am also a physician and I have spent time in paediatric intensive care units that are full of kids with severe Covid.

"Kids make up about a quarter of infections, and if we want to get this pandemic under control the kids need to be immunised. That will protect them and it will protect their grandparents and parents and everyone around them."

He also suggested people should start thinking of booster jabs as simply the third dose in a course of unspecified length.

"We haven't figured out how many jabs we need for Covid," he said. "The evidence from Israel shows that the third one increases your protection 10 or 20-fold and expands your protection to cover all the variants. So it's just the third in a series of doses to protect against Covid-19."

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