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Skin cancer vaccine trial shows promising results

December 13, 2022, 7:30 PM UTC
Person receiving vaccine
Moderna and Merck have teamed up for a new study.
Jeffrey Hamilton—Getty Images

A new skin cancer vaccine may be on the way. In a preliminary study released Tuesday, Moderna and Merck announced that when messenger RNA (mRNA) technology is combined with cancer immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab, it creates a vaccine that has been shown effective against melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.

The experimental vaccine from Moderna uses mRNA technology, which is most commonly found in coronavirus vaccines, and Keytruda, Merck’s cancer immunotherapy drug, to treat patients battling melanoma. Patients in the trial who received both the mRNA and Keytruda treatment saw a reduced risk of recurrence or death by 44% compared to patients who received Keytruda 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,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel says in a press release about the study. “We will begin additional studies in melanoma and other forms of cancer with the goal of bringing truly individualized cancer treatments to patients. We look forward to publishing the full data set and sharing the results at an upcoming oncology medical conference, as well as with health authorities.”

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, 88,059 new cases were reported and 8,092 people died from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The five-year survival rates for skin cancer are projected to be 60.3% for Stage 3 and 16.2% for Stage 4.

This randomized Phase 2b trial included 157 patients with Stage 3 or 4 melanoma. Both Moderna and Merck plan to discuss results of the trial with regulatory authorities and begin a Phase 3 study in melanoma patients in 2023.

“These findings also provide the first randomized evidence that a personalized neoantigen approach may be beneficial in melanoma,” says Jeffrey S. Weber, MD, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and deputy director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone.

Personalized cancer vaccines are equipped to “prime the immune system” so that a patient’s immune system can create a tailored response to help detect and fight tumor cells, according to the press release. Based on early clinical studies, the mRNA and Keytruda combination treatment may also enhance “T-cell-mediated destruction of tumor cells.”

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