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Home » Another mRNA vaccine cancer treatment — Epstein-Barr virus

Another mRNA vaccine cancer treatment — Epstein-Barr virus

The FDA recently approved an mRNA therapeutic cancer vaccine for an investigational new drug (IND) application to treat adult patients with Epstein-Barr virus-positive advanced solid tumors undergoing second-line systemic treatment. The second indication is for adult patients with relapsed or refractory Epstein-Barr virus-positive hematoma.

This is another vaccine of a growing line of mRNA vaccines that are being used for targeted immunotherapy of certain cancers.

person holding laboratory flask
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What is the Epstein-Barr virus?

The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), formally called Human gammaherpesvirus 4, is one of the nine known human herpesvirus types in the herpes family and is one of the most common viruses in humans. For those who are interested in these things, the virus is a double-stranded DNA virus.

As I mentioned above, virus infection occurs through the oral transfer of saliva, but it also can be from genital secretions. Most people who are infected by the Epstein-Barr virus gain adaptive immunity against the virus.

For unknown reasons, the Epstein-Barr virus hits harder the later you get it in life. If you first caught the virus as a baby or young child, as most people do, the initial infection was likely mild, if not asymptomatic. But it does not disappear.

So it might appear to be an unremarkable virus that can be ignored. Except, it does something that makes it more dangerous.

EBV infects B cells of the immune system and epithelial cells. Once the virus’ initial lytic infection is brought under control by the immune system, the Epstein-Barr virus latency persists in the individual’s B cells for the rest of their life. While hiding there, it is mostly benign. Mostly.

An article, published on 3 March 2022, in the Atlantic describes how the Epstein-Bar virus does its damage:

In particular, EBV infects a type of lymphocyte called a B cell, each of which is born to recognize a different hypothetical enemy. If a certain B cell never finds its matching enemy, it dies as part of the body’s ruthless culling of useless immune cells. If it does find a match, however, the B cell divides and transforms into memory B cells, which will remain to guard against infection for the rest of a person’s life.

EBV’s genius is that it co-opts this normal process. It manipulates infected B cells into thinking they have been activated, so that they turn into long-lasting memory B cells where the virus can hide for decades. (All herpesviruses in the family have this unusual ability to become latent, though they hide out in different types of cells. The chicken-pox virus, for example, uses nerve cells, sometimes coming out to cause shingles.) Occasionally, EBV emerges from its hiding place, replicating just enough to get by. If it replicates too little, it won’t find another host before getting shut down by the immune system. If it replicates too much, it risks harming its current host. The virus and immune system are in constant balance, each holding the other in check.

EBV is also linked to several cancers. At this time, there is no approved vaccine for Epstein-Barr virus, although several vaccine candidates are in clinical trials.

person in white hand gloves writing on white paper Epstein-Barr virus cancer
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Epstein-Barr virus vaccine for cancer

These mRNA cancer vaccines help create antibodies against specific antigens that are expressed by the Epstein-Barr virus in certain types of cancer.

I need to make an important point — a cancer “vaccine” is a bit of a misnomer. These vaccines induce an immune response, but they are not preventative like those for pathogens – they are used as treatments. This mRNA cancer vaccine is used as an adjuvant therapy for cancer treatment usually in conjunction with surgery plus chemotherapy and radiation.

So how does this “vaccine” work? The mRNA cancer vaccine trains the immune system to attack the cancer cells that may have been missed by surgery or chemotherapy, or have metastasized to another location.

This new vaccine is targeted against the following Epstein-Barr virus-related cancer.

The FDA has approved the cancer vaccine, WGc-043 (WestGene, a biotech company dedicated to mRNA technology), an Epstein-Barr (EB) virus-related mRNA therapeutic cancer vaccine, for an investigational new drug (IND) application. The IND application allows the vaccine to be used in clinical trials with human subjects. The FDA approval does not mean the drug has been approved for general use.

The new Epstein-Barr virus mRNA vaccine will be targeted against the following EB virus-related cancer types:

Currently, a phase 1 clinical trial (NCT05714748) in China is recruiting participants to determine a therapeutic candidate vaccine that targets EB virus-related malignant tumors in patients who are between 18 and 70 years of age and who failed second-line standard therapy. Although I am not clear on the research direction, I assume that WestGene will eventually include patients in the USA in anticipation of an eventual US FDA approval for the treatment.

The vaccine was developed by Chengdu Weisjin (WestGene) Biomedical Technology Co., Ltd. (WestGene Biotech), WGc-043 is an mRNA therapeutic cancer vaccine that recently received IND approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


Although we are very early in research, this is another mRNA-based vaccine that will be used in treating Epstein-Barr virus-related cancer. This therapeutic vaccine may become a critical tool in improving the chances of full remission from a dangerous set of cancers.

I am very excited about the research into using mRNA vaccines for the treatment of cancer. This is one of the great scientific advances that came out of the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.


  • Wang H, Fu BB, Gale RP, Liang Y. NK-/T-cell lymphomas. Leukemia. 2021 Sep;35(9):2460-2468. doi: 10.1038/s41375-021-01313-2. Epub 2021 Jun 11. PMID: 34117356; PMCID: PMC8410593.
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