Where is the immunotherapy field headed after COVID-19?

By Samantha Black, PhD, The Science Advisory Board editor in chief

November 15, 2021 -- WASHINGTON, DC - Best known for his contributions to the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, former Moderna chief medical officer, Dr. Tal Zaks, PhD, chaired a session on RNA vaccines at the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer's (SITC) 2021 annual meeting. Zaks shared his perspectives and hopeful outlook with ScienceBoard at the meeting.

Zaks co-chaired a SITC Hot Topic Symposium titled "RNA Vaccines: From COVID Back to Cancer" with Dr. Uğur Şahin. Earlier in the day, Şahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci were awarded the SITC Medal of Honor for their work on Project Lightspeed and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The symposium speakers discussed the differences and similarities between cancer vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines. Zaks noted that these vaccines are "diametrically opposite" with cancer vaccines aiming to treat illness compared to COVID-19 vaccines that are designed to prevent infections. Leveraging the common approach of mRNA vaccines allows scientists to gain a deeper understanding of how the immune system fundamentally operates.

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A 'monumental collaboration'

Charged with spearheading the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine -- an undeniably intense and stressful mandate -- Zaks explained that he was able to manage it because of his team at Moderna and beyond, which were aligned in mission and purpose around a shared goal. A team-based approach, during what Zaks coined a "monumental collaboration," is what kept everyone focused and healthy throughout the process.

Zaks noted how important it is to take time to decompress. In his case, this came only after authorization was achieved. He further explained that during his decompression time, he decided to transition to a new position as venture partner at OrbiMed, which will allow him to enable translational science from a different approach -- to fund innovation and participate in current frontiers of science.

Moving toward cures

"Cures becomes a word that is real," Zaks stated.

To expand immunotherapy modalities to bring cures to more people, Zaks explained that there are several areas where improvement is needed. These include better translation of preclinical models into the clinic and a better understanding of the human immune system.

"I'm optimistic that our understanding of human immunology will take a step change in the future and hopefully bring with it a step change in our ability to bring some of these curative therapies to a wider population."

Zaks called out several aspects of immunotherapy that he is excited about. First, he believes the development of single-cell analysis and machine-learning tools will be transformational for the field. Second, he noted the importance of bringing those tools to clinical trials for the translation of basic research. Lastly, he explained that patient participation and buy-in is critical so patients can continue to contribute to the sector's ability to analyze clinical trial data.

"The hope is that leveraging modern computational tools for single-cell analysis of the immune system will lead to novel insights that will enable us to do a better job in the future," Zaks said.

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