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  • A new report from Moderna and Merck found that a personalized mRNA vaccine in combination with an immunotherapy drug helped reduce the recurrence of melanoma.
  • The drug-vaccine combination reduced the risk of death or recurrence of melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, by 44% compared with Merck’s immunotherapy Keytruda alone.
  • The vaccine is still being tested and Merck said they expect to start a Phase 3 trial soon.

This week scientists have announced we may be one step closer to getting a vaccine that can help prevent skin cancer.

A clinical trial looking at the combination of a personalized mRNA cancer vaccine from Moderna and Merck’s immunotherapy drug Keytruda reportedly showed that this treatment can work to help prevent a recurrence of skin cancer.

Keytruda, a type of immunotherapy called an immune checkpoint inhibitor, is now approved for more than a dozen types of cancer treatments.

The drug-vaccine combination reduced the risk of death or recurrence of melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, by 44% compared with Merck’s immunotherapy Keytruda alone, according to Merck.

In a press statement, Dr. Kyle Holen, MD, Moderna’s Senior Vice President and Head of Development, Therapeutics and Oncology, said, “The profound observed reduction in the risk of recurrence-free survival suggests this combination may be a novel means of potentially extending the lives of patients with high-risk melanoma.”

He added that the company will move to the Phase 3 melanoma trial soon and will also expand testing to lung cancer and beyond.

This neoantigen cancer vaccine is designed based on an analysis of a patient’s tumors after surgical removal. The vaccines are designed to rev up the immune response to recognize and attack specific mutations in cancer cells.

While the mRNA cancer vaccine is still considered experimental, for those who enrolled in the trial, it could be precisely what they’ve been hoping for.

Dr. Michelle Brown, executive director, oncology at Moderna, told Healthline that this is just the beginning of something that is potentially game-changing.

“When I think of the history of vaccines and immunotherapies and look at where we are now, it is clinically significant. But we are standing on the shoulders of immunology pioneers that allowed us to integrate technologies to generate this personalized therapy,” Brown said.

She added that when she thinks of the inflection points in cancer treatment development, a few come to mind.

“First came chemotherapy, which was very untargeted but it changed treatment,” she said. “Then we had the movement toward personalized, targeted options and molecular pathways. Then we lived through the immune inhibitors and the harnessing of the immune system. And now we are in the fourth frontier which is the neoantigen individual approach.”

Dr. Hubert Greenway, from Scripps Clinic in San Diego, has performed more than 41,000 surgeries for people with skin cancer and has trained 65 fellows, while also leading an annual melanoma conference for more than 30 years.

“I believe we’re going to look back at this trial as an absolute game changer,” Greenway told Healthline. “Not just for this subset of melanoma patients, but also because the success of this mRNA approach also opens the door for vaccine trials for other cancers.”

Dr. Greg Daniels, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist and professor of medicine at UC San Diego who was not a part of this trial, has been working in the field of immunology for 20 years.

He, too, believes this is the beginning of something new and big.

“Yes, this does take it to another step,” he said. “I would explain this by simply saying that you have a lot of horses with the vaccine. You lead them to the water, and Keytruda enables them to drink.”

Moderna’s Brown said that virtually everyone working in this field hopes to see this technology expand to many other cancer types.

“We’re hopeful about what is to come in other types of cancer,” said Brown. “We hope that these treatments will give people longer remissions, positive experiences.”

Brown said one issue that she wants to address is the fact that it takes about six weeks to manufacture these products — from tumor blood collection to the sequencing, selection and manufacturing.

“It takes time. We are looking at how we can address these things. We are excited about the potential here but we want to make sure the experience is a good one for patients,” she said.

Several other companies are working to leverage these this technology. These include BioNTech and Gritstone Bio Inc.