Pharma giants Merck and Moderna have teamed up to develop a cancer vaccine based on the same technology used in the Covid shot.
The new shot — designed for people with high-risk melanoma — is in the second of three trials, and a verdict on whether or not it works is expected within months.
It utilizes mRNA technology that uses pieces of genetic code from patients’ tumors to teach the body to fight the cancer.
The vaccine is given to people after surgery to prevent the tumor from returning and is tailored to each patient, meaning no two shots will be the same.
This means that it can be hugely expensive. Similar cancer vaccines being tested cost around $100,000 (£91,000) to make each shot.
Merck and Moderna will share manufacturing and commercial costs and share profits if it goes to market. The collaboration has excited the markets and sent Moderna’s shares soaring by 16 percent on Wednesday.
MRNA leads the frontier of potential cancer cures after the technology was rapidly accelerated during the pandemic, leading to the two most successful Covid vaccines – made by Pfizer and Moderna.
The new shot — designed for people with high-risk melanoma — is in the second of three trials, and a verdict on whether or not it works is expected within months. It utilizes mRNA technology that delivers pieces of genetic code from patients’ tumors into their cells and teaches the body to fight the cancer. The vaccine is given to people after surgery to prevent the tumor from returning and is tailored to each patient, meaning no two shots will be the same
The collaboration between Merck and Moderna excited the markets and sent Moderna’s shares soaring by 16 percent on Wednesday
As part of the updated deal, Merck will pay $250 million to Moderna for shared rights to the cancer vaccine.
The two drugmakers have been running trials of the shot together after forming a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2016.
In the latest phase 2 study, 157 patients received customized vaccines along with Merck’s immunotherapy drug Keytruda.
How mRNA technology could cure cancer
For over a decade, cancer researchers have been working on individualized cancer vaccines using technology including mRNA.
Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is genetic material that tells the body how to make proteins.
The mRNA Covid vaccine teaches cells in the body how to make a protein that triggers an immune response.
The immune response generates antibodies, so that if the body is later exposed to the real virus, the body will recognize it and know how to fight it.
With a cancer vaccine, researchers aim to produce an immune response to fight abnormal proteins, known as neoantigens, made by cancer cells.
The manufacturing process for the vaccine begins with identifying the genetic mutations in a patient’s tumor cells that can release neoantigens.
The patient will have had the tumor surgically removed, which means scientists can easily look at the tumor’s cells.
Computer algorithms judge which neoantigens are most likely to latch onto receptors on white blood cells and trigger an immune response.
The personal jab can contain genetic sequences for up to 34 different neoantigens.
It is hoped that the mRNA vaccine will then activate white blood cells, which can recognize individual cancer cells thanks to the cancer cells’ neoantigens.
The vaccine will effectively teach the immune system that cancer cells are different from the rest of the body.
This will hopefully not be too hard, as neoantigens are not formed on normal cells.
Once tissue samples have been collected from a patient, it takes between one and two months to make a personalized mRNA cancer vaccine.
A previous Moderna-sponsored study of a personalized cancer vaccine in head and neck cancer patients saw the biotech company produce each individual shot in about six weeks.
Because of the specialized nature of the vaccines, each one can cost up to $100,000.
Source: National Cancer Institute, CDC
They are compared to a control group, which also has high-risk melanoma but only receives Keytruda. The trial has been going on for the past year.
If it works, the vaccine will be tested in a much larger group involving thousands of patients.
Moderna was able to develop, test and seal approval of its Covid shot within a year. The vaccine uses DNA taken from each patient’s tumor.
This genetic snippet is then inserted into messenger RNA – the molecule that carries a cell’s instructions for making proteins.
Once inside the body, the mRNA delivers this piece of code to human cells, teaching them to recognize cancer cells and attack them if it returns.
The hope is that the body will be able to recognize and destroy them before they can start to multiply and form tumors.
The vaccine is given in nine doses every three weeks along with a course of Keytruda every three weeks.
Dr. Stephen Hoge, Moderna’s president, said he was “excited about the future and the impact mRNA can have as a new treatment paradigm in the management of cancer”.
With the Covid vaccine market expected to die down in the near future, Moderna has turned its attention to non-Covid vaccines.
The biotech giant’s stock jumped 16 percent when the cancer vaccine was announced yesterday morning, and was still up about 10 percent in the afternoon.
Moderna and Merck’s joint venture may be cause for optimism, but Americans seem to be suffering from vaccine fatigue after constant Covid-jab rollouts.
The White House’s lead Covid chief, Dr Ashish Jha, issued a warning on Tuesday that the pandemic is not over in response to slow US booster vaccine uptake.
The rollout of the bivalent booster vaccines, which were designed to perform better against Omicron variants, has largely been a failure to this point.
The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that only 11 million Americans have received the shot so far.
That represents fewer than 10 percent of everyone eligible for jabs.
Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society said that the frequency of melanoma has grown significantly in recent years.
It estimates that about 99,780 new melanomas will be diagnosed (about 57,180 in men and 42,600 in women) in the United States in 2022.
And about 7,650 people are expected to die from melanoma (about 5,080 men and 2,570 women).
You are more than 20 times more likely to get melanoma if you are white compared to if you are African American.
The lifetime risk of getting melanoma is about 2.6 percent (one in 38) for whites, 0.1 percent (one in 1,000) for blacks, and 0.6 percent (one in 167) for Hispanics.
The type of cancer is more common in men, but before the age of 50 it is more common in women.
Merck and Moderna will share manufacturing and commercial costs and share profits if it goes to market
The two drugmakers have been running trials of the shot together after forming a ‘strategic partnership’ in 2016
The older you are, the greater your risk of getting melanoma.
The average age of diagnosis is 65, but it is also not unusual in those under 30.
It is one of the more common cancers in young adults, especially young women.
Melanoma occurs after the DNA in skin cells is damaged (typically due to harmful UV rays) and then not repaired, triggering mutations that can form malignant tumors.
It is currently treated in a few different ways.
The melanoma can be removed by removing the entire section of the tumor or by having the surgeon remove the skin layer by layer. When a surgeon removes it layer by layer, this helps them find out exactly where the cancer stops, so they don’t have to remove more skin than necessary.
The patient may decide to use a skin graft if the surgery has left discoloration or an indentation.
Immunotherapy, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy may be needed if the cancer reaches stage III or IV.
This means that the cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes or other organs in the body.
Other trials of the cancer shot have shown that it is not effective in patients with colon cancer, but it showed promising results for head and neck cancer.
In the first 10 participants, two had their tumors disappear completely, and another five had their tumors shrink.
In 2010, the FDA approved sipuleucel-T, a vaccine used to treat prostate cancer that has spread.
But the treatment, available for late-stage cancer patients, does not appear to shrink tumors and only gives men who receive it a few extra months to live.
Studies are now looking to see if the shot can be used in people with prostate cancer at earlier stages.
Dr. Stephen Hoge, Moderna’s president, said: ‘We have collaborated with Merck on personalized cancer vaccines (PCVs) since 2016, and together we have made significant progress in advancing mRNA-4157 as a personalized cancer treatment study used in combination with Keytruda.
“With data expected this quarter on PCV, we remain excited about the future and the impact mRNA can have as a new treatment paradigm in the treatment of cancer. Continuing our strategic alliance with Merck is an important milestone as we continue with growing our mRNA platform with promising clinical programs in multiple therapeutic areas.’