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Treating cancer with mRNA

Image by fernandozhiminaicela/Pixabay

Since the corona pandemic, mRNA vaccines have been on everyone’s lips. With mRNA technology, however, you can do much more than protect against virus infection. Medical professionals can also use it to treat cancer.

Aside from chemotherapy and radiation, there are other approaches to treating cancer. So-called immune checkpoint inhibitors help the body’s own immune system a little on the jumps. This allows the body to eliminate the malignant cells by itself. But this therapy does not work for all patients. That is why researchers from the USA have developed a method in which mRNA improves this therapy even further.

What are immune checkpoint inhibitors?

Parts of the immune system called T cells can recognize and destroy cancer cells. Cancer cells, on the other hand, can virtually mask themselves and are thus not recognized as malignant by the T cells. The masking can, however, be lifted by drugs. These drugs are called immune checkpoint inhibitors. With them, the immune system can fight the cancer better.

Why doesn’t the therapy work for everyone?

The US scientists have found out why the immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy does not work in some skin cancer patients: their T cells lack a certain protein (called NKG7). If the cells don’t produce it themselves, can the scientists help them?

How does mRNA help treat cancer?

mRNA is like the blueprint for the body’s own proteins. Our bodies use them every day to function and regenerate. You can also inject the mRNA and get the body to produce proteins that it normally does not produce itself or in smaller quantities. This is how the mRNA vaccines against Corona virus work (more details here).

The US scientists treated the T cells of skin cancer patients with mRNA, causing them to produce NKG7. This had the result that the treatment with immune checkpoint inhibitors also worked. So far, the scientists have only tested the treatment in the laboratory. In the future, therapy with mRNA could support the immune system to reduce the number of cancer cells and prevent the cancer from spreading.


  • Immun-Checkpoint-Inhibitoren – Altmeyers Enzyklopädie – Fachbereich Dermatologie (read 15.12.21, 5.30 p.m)
  • Barham, W. J., Wen, T., Li, Y., Zhang, H., Liu, C., Hirdler, J., … & Dong, H. (2021). NKG7 mRNA therapy increases the anti-tumor cytotoxicity of CD8 T cells.

Published by Katrin Heidemeyer

Katrin Heidemeyer ist Doktorandin im Bereich Biochemie an der Wageningen University and Research. Durch ihre Arbeit möchte sie das Wissen über die Spezifität von Hormon-Signalen in Pflanzen erweitern. Da ihre Interessen über Pflanzenbiologie hinausreichen, schreibt sie in ihrer Freizeit über diverse Themen. Von Ernährung zu Psychologie, der Neugierde sind keine Grenzen gesetzt.

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