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Moderna’s Personalized Cancer Therapy: The New Transformative Approach to Oncology

by Aurora Mau
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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the end of 2019, Moderna leveraged the mRNA platform that it has been studying for the past decade and created an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in a shockingly short time. With mRNA’s speed and efficiency in the manufacturing process, Moderna believes that it can also bring personalized cancer vaccines to the market, providing cancer patients with an alternative treatment option.

During the media briefing on mRNA-Based Oncology Pipeline, Dr. Paul Burton, Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, gave us a comprehensive view of Moderna’s personalized cancer vaccine program. Additionally, he provided some answers regarding how cancer vaccines will affect oncology research and the future price setting.

Related Article: Moderna To Collaborate With Harbour BioMed On Nucleic Acid-Based Cancer Therapies

How Moderna Designs its Personalized Cancer Vaccines

Cancer is an extremely complex disease, and since each patient’s gene mutation is different, the treatment can be quite challenging. However, the recent breakthrough in cancer immunotherapy has demonstrated powerful anti-tumor responses achieved by activating antigen-specific T cells, and that is where Moderna wants to weigh in with its mRNA technology.

Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) can identify mutations in a patient’s cancer cells, allowing the immune system to distinguish cancer cells from normal cells. Moderna’s research team then uses specially designed algorithms to predict 34 mutations that they believe will elicit the strongest immune response. With mutations identified, they can develop mRNA against each protein/antigen and stitch them together into one single mRNA. The mRNA, also known as a personalized cancer vaccine, will be administrated to the patient. Once the patient’s cells take up the mRNA, they will express the proteins exactly the right way to one’s immune system. This mechanism may help the immune system better recognize cancer cells as foreign and destroy them.

For the treatment, Moderna has been giving the patients in the clinical trial a dose of 1mg mRNA vaccine every three weeks for around nine months, which is 20 times the dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 booster, which is 50mcg. 

Moderna is currently running its cancer vaccine’s clinical study along with Merck. The trial compares the personalized vaccine in combination with Keytruda to Keytruda as a monotherapy. 

The Advantages of Leveraging mRNA Technology in Cancer Treatment

After 12 years of dedicating itself to mRNA research, Moderna has the ability to complete the whole process, from taking the samples from a patient’s tumor, sequencing, and producing mRNA to creating an individualized, personalized vaccine in only a week.

Besides the manufacturing process’s speed and efficiency, mRNA technology also allows Moderna to produce certain antigens rapidly and combine them into one therapeutic on a large scale. And since each cancer vaccine is an individualized, personalized therapeutic, Moderna requires a substantial manufacturing scale. Overall, patients can begin their treatment very quickly and effectively.

Vaccine or Therapeutic?

When it comes to personalized treatment, the price inevitably tends to be unaffordable for most patients. Dr. Burton pointed out that the price setting would have to wait until Moderna presents the data. Then, they will have to discuss the value to the patients thoroughly with regulators worldwide and how to support following clinical trials.

Additionally, Moderna is debating changing the name Personalized Cancer Vaccine to Personalized Cancer Therapeutic. Even though the mechanism leads it to the vaccine category since it activates the patient’s immune system, Dr. Burton thinks it is more like a therapeutic approach to fighting cancer.

It usually takes multiple healthcare professionals, including nurses, surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists, and multi-model therapies to treat one cancer patient. For some early-stage patients, the treatment strategy would usually be removing the tumor surgically and checking up annually to keep them disease free. As for those diagnosed with late-stage cancer, physicians tend to halt cancer progression with all kinds of treatment. However, oncologists like Dr. Burton would prefer to turn cancer into a chronic disease that patients can live with. Personalized cancer vaccines provide the opportunity to manage cancer in a transformative approach, with tailored mRNA and a proven tolerable safety profile.

It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic played a crucial role in personalized cancer vaccine development since it allowed the world to witness the infinite potential coming with the mRNA platform. During the post-pandemic era, how Moderna and other pharmaceuticals will transform this technology into the next promising therapeutic for cancer and potentially other diseases is what we look forward to seeing soon.

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