Dr. M. Sitki Copur, a medical oncologist, says the vaccines being used for COVID-19 may have benefits in the fight against cancer.
The development of the vaccines is a “very exciting development not only for coronavirus infection but it has a lot of implications in the treatment of cancer,” said Copur, who works for Mary Lanning Healthcare’s Morrison Cancer Center in Hastings
The two vaccines, developed by Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna, are known as mRNA vaccines. Both work via a novel messenger RNA mechanism, or mRNA, he said.
mRNA, or messenger RNA, is genetic material that contains instructions for making proteins.
Every disaster comes with a silver lining, Copur says.
In this case, the coronavirus brought much more funding to messenger RNA vaccine research.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first mRNA vaccines to be approved for human use.
“What it does is it opens the door for cancer research,” Copur said.
“My excitement as an oncologist is that this will open the door for more cancer immunotherapy research,” he said. “It will be big leap in our fight against cancer.”
The mRNA vaccines are a relatively new class of vaccines.
The medical community is excited about the messenger RNA vaccines not only for their potential to complement or even replace traditional vaccines but also for their potential use in noninfectious diseases such as cancer, said Copur, who has written a paper describing messenger RNA vaccines as the “beckoning of a new era in cancer immunotherapy.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps one’s immune system fight cancer.
“While the concept of possible use of mRNA vaccines against infectious diseases, genetic disorders and cancer has been around for decades, until now no vaccines using this technology have made it to human use,” Copur wrote. The trials leading to the first Food and Drug Administration approval of mRNA-based vaccines in humans marks the beginning of a new era not only for the infectious disease field but also for oncology, he wrote.
Oncology is the study and treatment of tumors.
In the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the mRNA carries instructions to make the SARS-CoV-2 “spike” protein, which is “the prickly projections on the surface of the virus,” Copur wrote.
During the pandemic, Copur has received many questions from patients and other physicians.
People ask if the COVID vaccine will work if they have cancer, if they’re undergoing chemotherapy and if they’re on immunosuppressive drugs.
They also ask if the coronarivus poses greater risk for people who have cancer.
When someone has COVID-19, having cancer or being on chemo does not determine how well they will do, he said. Just like anyone else, their progress is determined by co-morbidity conditions, such as age, underlying chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a high body mass index, he said.
Giving the messenger RNA vaccine to cancer patients will not put them at any higher risk, he said.
If people’s immune systems are suppressed by chemotherapy or by cancer itself, “the vaccine would still help them. We do not know to what extent, but we know that it would not hurt them,” Copur said.