Turning COVID-19 vaccine technology against cancer

U.S. and international researchers are using lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine technology to develop treatments that show promise in fighting cancer.

In December, U.S. biotech firm Moderna announced that a cancer vaccine developed using messenger RNA (mRNA) — a key component of certain U.S.-produced COVID-19 vaccines — reduces the risk of recurrence or death in some melanoma patients by 44% when used in combination with an existing cancer treatment.

The clinical trial conducted in partnership with New Jersey-based pharmaceutical firm Merck is a major step in using mRNA technology to treat cancer, according to Moderna Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel.

“mRNA has been transformative for COVID-19, and now, for the first time ever, we have demonstrated the potential for mRNA to have an impact on outcomes in a randomized clinical trial in melanoma,” Bancel said. “We will begin additional studies in melanoma and other forms of cancer with the goal of bringing truly individualized cancer treatments to patients.”

U.S. firms, the U.S. government and international partners developed mRNA vaccines in the fight against COVID-19, based on decades of U.S.-supported research. Rather than use a weakened form of the virus, mRNA vaccines use a virus’ genetic code to trigger an immune response. The mRNA vaccines remain very effective at reducing the likelihood of hospitalization and/or severe illness.

The U.S. government has donated millions of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines to dozens of countries around the world. And U.S. researchers are adapting mRNA vaccine technology to develop vaccines against other diseases, including HIV/AIDS, the Zika virus and the flu.

Researchers have for decades struggled to prevent cancer with traditional vaccines. Bancel says using mRNA technology and data on specific patients’ tumors to develop “personalized cancer vaccines,” is the new mRNA frontier in the fight against cancer.

The German firm BioNTech, which produced an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine with New York-based Pfizer, currently has numerous mRNA therapeutics in clinical trials, including ones targeting prostate, ovarian and colorectal cancers.

Dr. Dean Y. Li, president of Merck Research Laboratories, says Merck and Moderna will continue to advance new treatments. “Over the last six years, our teams have worked closely together combining our respective expertise in mRNA and immuno-oncology with a focus on improving outcomes for patients with cancer,” he said.