The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) today announced a formal collaboration withBioNTech SE to accelerate research into using its vaccine technology against cancer, and test personalised mRNA therapies on NHS patients, which some experts are calling "revolutionary".
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Steve Barclay is to sign a memorandum of understanding with BioNTech, the German-based company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop one of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, which will bring its "innovative vaccine research" to England. The agreement will create a new research and development hub, generating jobs and "strengthening the UK's position as a leader in global life sciences", the Government said. It will accelerate clinical trials of personalised immunotherapies for cancer and infectious disease vaccines.
Currently 1 in 2 people in the UK gets cancer during their lifetime. Every year, almost 400,000 new cases are diagnosed, and cancer costs the NHS £7 billion annually. The agreement means that cancer patients will get "early access to trials exploring personalised mRNA therapies, like cancer vaccines". Trials for innovative treatments could start as early as autumn 2023 and have "the potential to transform outcomes for cancer patients", the DHSC said.
Vaccinate People Against Their Own Cancer
Unlike vaccines to protect against diseases, the use of mRNA technology in cancer therapy is for people who already have cancer and aims to boost the immune system's ability to recognise, attack and destroy the cancer cells. No two cancers are the same, and mRNA vaccines will contain a genetic blueprint personalised to a patient's own tumour.
The partnership with BioNTech will aim to help patients with both early and late-stage cancers. If successfully developed, cancer vaccines could become part of standard care. Access to the trials will be via a Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad being developed by NHS England and Genomics England, which will aim rapidly to identify large numbers of cancer patients who could be eligible for the trials, and to explore potential vaccines across multiple types of cancer. The DHSC said that the collaboration could deliver up to 10,000 personalised therapies to UK patients by 2030.
UK Patients Among First in the World to Participate in Trials
The Health and Social Care Secretary said: "Once cancer is detected, we need to ensure the best possible treatments are available as soon as possible, including for breast, lung and pancreatic cancer. BioNTech helped lead the world on a COVID-19 vaccine and they share our commitment to scientific advancement, innovation, and cutting-edge scientific technology, making them perfect partners for a deal to work together on cancer vaccines.
"This partnership will mean that, from as early as September, our patients will be among the first to participate in trials and tests to provide targeted, personalised and precision treatments using transformative new therapies to both treat the existing cancer and help stop it returning. This agreement builds on this Government’s promise to increase research and development spending to £20 billion per year, and demonstrates the UK remains one of the most attractive places in the world for innovative companies to invest in research, trial new treatments and treat patients more effectively.
"Building on the lessons learnt during the pandemic - including the development of a COVID-19 vaccine - the partnership will enable the government and BioNTech to harness the country’s world-leading expertise in organisations such as the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and Genomics England.
"The launch pad will complement the ongoing work of the NHS Genomic Medicine Service, which helps patients access the latest testing technologies and ensures they are given more targeted precision treatments for their cancer with transformative approaches and better outcomes. BioNTech's investment will include setting up a new research and development hub and offices in the UK, creating jobs and strengthening the UK's position as a leader in global life sciences."
Partnership 'a Giant Leap' Towards Better Outcomes
Minister for Health and Secondary Care Will Quince said: "Getting a cancer diagnosis can be heart-breaking for patients and families. This partnership represents a giant leap towards achieving better outcomes for patients. BioNTech has a proven and distinguished record in vaccine technology and contributed significantly to the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. This partnership now has the potential to develop research leading to cancer therapies, which could save lives."
Expansion of BioNTech's UK Footprint
BioNTech said that the collaboration focused on "three strategic pillars": cancer immunotherapies based on mRNA or other drug classes, infectious disease vaccines, and expansion of BioNTech's footprint in the UK as "one of the company's key markets".
The company’s aims were "to design and roll out randomised clinical trials with registrational potential" for its personalised mRNA cancer immunotherapies and infectious disease vaccines in the UK, including in adjuvant or metastatic settings. As part of the accelerated clinical trial site and patient recruitment for clinical candidates of BioNTech's pipeline within the collaboration with the UK Government, the first cancer patient would be enrolled in a trial later this year.
By 2030, up to 10,000 patients would have received personalised cancer therapieseither in clinical trials or as authorised treatments. To achieve this, the parties plan to utilise the UK's clinical trial network, genomics, and health data assets, the company said.
BioNTech's end of the agreement includes funding for an research and development hub in Cambridge to employ more than 70 "highly skilled scientists", with the first employees commencing work in the next few months.In addition, "the company will strengthen its UK footprint by setting up a regional headquarter in London to accommodate employees in global and regional supporting functions, including regulatory, medical, intellectual property, and legal". As part of the agreement, BioNTech will remain the local sponsor of current and upcoming new clinical trials of its programs in the UK, and will design the clinical trial protocols.
In addition to its COVID-19 vaccine, BioNTech's infectious diseases vaccine pipeline includes influenza and shingles vaccine programs (also partnered with Pfizer), as well as a fully owned malaria vaccine program and a herpes-simplex-virus-2 vaccine program. In total, the Company is running research and preclinical development programs targeting more than 10 additional infectious diseases.
Prof Ugur Sahin, MD, chief executive officer and co-founder of BioNTech, said: "The UK successfully delivered COVID-19 vaccines so quickly because the National Health Service, academia, the regulator and the private sector worked together in an exemplary way. This agreement is a result of the lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic. Drug development can be accelerated without cutting corners if everyone works seamlessly together towards the same goal. Today's agreement shows we are committed to do the same for cancer patients.
"Our goal is to accelerate the development of immunotherapies and vaccines using technologies we have been researching for over 20 years. The collaboration will cover various cancer types and infectious diseases affecting collectively hundreds of millions of people worldwide. If successful, this collaboration has the potential to improve outcomes for patients and provide early access to our suite of cancer immunotherapies as well as to innovative vaccines against infectious diseases – in the UK and worldwide."
National Clinical Director for Cancer, Prof Peter Johnson said: "As we continue to drive forward efforts to diagnose cancers at the earliest possible stage, we also need to make sure we are looking at every opportunity to improve treatments. This new partnership will unlock the potential to develop revolutionary treatments in the UK to benefit NHS patients.
"mRNA technology has the potential to be a transformative approach in a number of illnesses, and we hope that by finding out how to vaccinate people against their own cancers we can further improve their chances of staying cancer-free."
UK a 'Great Opportunity to Lead' the Field
Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK, told Medscape News UK: "mRNA vaccines are one of the most exciting research developments to come out of the pandemic, and there are strong hints that they could become powerful treatment options for cancer.
"Getting there will require lots more research, which is why this news is so exciting. The NHS provides the world-class infrastructure and DNA sequencing technologies that are essential for testing this new technology and unlocking its life-saving potential. The UK has a great opportunity to lead in this field.
"However, these ambitions won’t become a reality without a strong UK clinical research environment. And recovering to a pre-pandemic 'normal' will not be enough. Instead, to go beyond recovery and ensure such partnerships benefit patients, the Government must address the underlying issues currently disrupting trials. For instance, chronic workforce shortages and cancer backlogs leftover from the pandemic are leaving NHS staff with even less time to support trials. If this pattern continues, it will mean slower progress towards new treatments.”
Also asked to comment by Medscape News UK, Dr Lennard Lee, academic medical oncologist at the University of Oxford, said: "The willingness of the Department of Health to commit so significantly to the cancer vaccine launchpad is absolutely astounding, exciting and inspiring. It shows huge ambition in a technology that may transform tens of millions of lives globally.
"Cancer patients and their doctors are hopping with excitement about the potential of UK patients being the first to benefit from cancer vaccines, as part of trials from this partnership with BioNTech. Our crowning legacy during the pandemic has been the Oxford-Astrazeneca coronavirus vaccine and for this focus to be moved to cancer will be revolutionary."