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Moderna scientists are developing a new skin cancer vaccine. Bloomberg / Contributor/Getty Images
  • Researchers say a new mRNA skin cancer vaccine being developed by Moderna is showing promise.
  • They report that in a phase 2 clinical trial people with stage 3 or 4 melanoma who were given the vaccine along with immunotherapy treatment had lower rates of cancer recurrence and death.
  • Experts say the vaccine is the latest in a series of new treatments in recent years for melanoma.

An mRNA vaccine in clinical trials has shown promise in the treatment of stage 3 and 4 melanoma.

Researchers report that the Moderna vaccine, used in combination with immunotherapy treatments, reduced the risk of recurrence and death from stage 3 and 4 melanoma by 44% compared with just immunotherapy alone.

“Today’s results are highly encouraging for the field of cancer treatment. 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,” Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive officer of Moderna said in a press release.

“We will begin additional studies in melanoma and other forms of cancer with the goal of bringing truly individualized cancer treatments to patients,” Bancel added.

Moderna’s mRNA vaccine works by using a cancer patient’s individual tumor mutation signature to prime the immune system to generate a specific antitumor immune response.

Dr. Vishal Anil Patel, the director of Cutaneous Oncology at the GW Cancer Center in Washington D.C., says the results of the Moderna trial are promising.

“It builds upon the ground-breaking holy grail in oncology that is immunotherapy. Immunotherapy utilizes the body’s own system to target and clear out cells that do not belong. While that can work well, often those cells need help finding their ways to target the cells that don’t belong,” Patel told Healthline.

“We have tried to use a variety of ways to improve the ‘directions’ for those immune cells to the tumor — mRNA vaccines provide a very efficient and effective way of specifically helping the immune cells of identifying the abnormal cells,” he added. “Think of a car that is trying to break through a wall — the mRNA vaccine helps provide the GPS to find the wall and the immunotherapy helps take the foot off the break so the car can speed up and break through the wall and destroy the tumor.”

The results of the phase 2 clinical trial are the first effective demonstration of an investigational mRNA vaccine for cancer treatment.

In the trial, 157 people with stage 3 or 4 melanoma underwent a surgical resection of their tumor. From there, patients were either given the mRNA vaccine as well as an immunotherapy treatment involving the drug Keytruda or just the immunotherapy treatment alone.

Researchers said those who had both the mRNA vaccine as well as immunotherapy had a 44% reduction in cancer recurrence and death when compared with the group who only had immunotherapy.

“This is a very impressive result and potentially good news if further studies validate this effectiveness,” Dr. Gino Kim In, a medical oncologist with USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles, told Healthline.

“While very promising, this is still a very small and early clinical trial, what we refer to as a phase 2 study. The next step will to be conduct a larger phase 3 trial with several hundreds of patients, to provide the stringent requirements that the FDA needs to consider this an approach for everybody,” he added. “So, we are still a few years away from seeing this approach in the clinic. That being said, FDA approval for an mRNA vaccine against melanoma would definitely make it more possible for this approach to be used in other cancers as well.”

Melanoma accounts for only 1% of all skin cancers but causes a majority of skin cancer deaths, mainly due to the tendency of this type of cancer to spread to other parts of the body.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, nearly 100,000 new melanomas will be diagnosed and more than 7,500 people will die of the disease.

While some risk factors for melanoma (such as age and race) can’t be controlled, limiting UV exposure is the most effective way to reduce the risk of melanoma.

The investigational mRNA vaccine is the latest in a line of advancements that have improved survival rates for those living with melanoma.

“We’re starting to use the word ‘cure’ in a way that we didn’t before for this disease. So anything that improves that baseline number, the way that this data is looking to, is very, very attractive,” Dr. Amanda Kirane, a board-certified specialist in complex general surgical oncology at Stanford University in California, told Healthline.

“Especially because the mechanism of this drug, the Moderna drug, is one where it doesn’t seem to add much by way of adverse event rate, which makes sense based on its mechanism,” she added. “The two drugs work together very well in coordination without adding side effects, which you can’t say for most of the other drugs on the market.”