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Cancer vaccine from BioNTech, Roche shows potential in small study

An experimental vaccine developed by German drug developer BioNTech showed early promise in a small study of people with pancreatic cancer, suggesting that personalized immunotherapy could offer a way to treat one of the deadliest types of tumors.

The results, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, showed trial participants who responded to treatment with the vaccine went longer without their cancer returning after surgery than those who didn’t respond. The study was primarily designed to assess safety and participants’ immune responses, and “responder” analyses aren’t as rigorous a test as placebo-controlled comparisons.

Still, the data’s publication is the second time this year a drugmaker has detailed trial findings for a personalized cancer vaccine, after years of setbacks in the research field. In April, Moderna and partner Merck & Co. disclosed full results from a mid-stage trial of a cancer vaccine they’re developing for melanoma.

The studies also provide a sign that the biggest names in messenger RNA-based medicines may have a chance to deliver on expectations investors held for them in cancer treatment prior to their success developing COVID-19 vaccines. Roche paid $310 million seven years ago to collaborate with BioNTech on mRNA cancer vaccines.

BioNTech tested its cancer vaccine together with the immunotherapy Tecentriq, which is manufactured by Roche. The small trial was designed to detect whether the vaccine could stimulate T cells that target patient-specific mutated proteins on tumor cells. BioNTech said its vaccine can target up to 20 of these so-called neoantigens per patient.

Patients first underwent surgery to remove their tumors, then were treated with a single dose of Tecentriq, followed by eight infusions of BioNTech’s vaccine, called, autogene cevumeran. They then received a chemotherapy regimen called FOLFIRINOX. Of the 34 patients who were screened in the trial, 28 underwent surgery, 19 received Tecentriq, 16 got autogene cevumeran and 15 were treated with chemotherapy. Some patients dropped out for reasons that included disease progression, personal decisions to withdraw and an inability to manufacture the vaccine.