BioNTech has signed a deal with the UK government to enrol up to 10,000 patients in clinical trials by the end of 2030 for personalised cancer therapies.
The deal is a big win for the UK, yet new cancer treatments will only work if the NHS does.
Vaccines based on mRNA were the standout success of the COVID-19 pandemic. And persuading BioNTech, the company which pioneered them, to come to the UK is a coup for the Department of Health.
But with even basic cancer services in the UK failing, experts are tempering their enthusiasm.
“This is really exciting,” says Sam Godfrey of Cancer Research UK. “But the government can’t just paper over the cracks with a shiny new announcement.”
More than 600 million of doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine have now been administered worldwide saving millions of lives. During the pandemic, BioNTech proved mRNA vaccines’ time has come.
Which is why a deal with BioNTech is a strategic success for the government.
The pandemic exposed the UK’s lack of commercial expertise in mRNA vaccines. This deal, along with one last month with leading mRNA vaccine company Moderna, secures that talent base in the UK.
Designing mRNA vaccines against cancer is a very different challenge to COVID. But before the pandemic, cancer was the main area of research for BioNTech and Moderna.
Because mRNA is basically a re-coded form of DNA, it’s relatively quick and easy to convert a sample of DNA from a patient’s cancer into an mRNA vaccine to give them. But so far immunotherapies aren’t perfect.
For a few, they’re a miracle cure, but overall only between 10% and 20% of patients see benefits.
For drug companies, the NHS offers a perfect environment to work out the scientific kinks in cancer vaccines.
Millions of patients centralised in one health system make them much easier to recruit and follow in potentially life-saving clinical trials.
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Yet with delays to cancer diagnoses and treatment, the NHS is struggling to provide existing treatments, let alone have much hope of benefitting from new ones.
And the problem isn’t all down to the pandemic. NHS England’s target of getting 85% of patients on to treatment within 62 days of an urgent cancer referral hasn’t been met since 2015.
Leading the world in developing new cancer treatments requires a world-leading health service, which it is all too clear we currently don’t have.