June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

by Mikayla Hu (30 January 2023)

Two leading manufacturers of mRNA vaccines, Moderna and BioNTech, have shifted their research and development focus from immunization to cancer treatments. And through the focus of something have seen used before, mRNA vaccines. 

We have become quite familiar with mRNA vaccines, were one of the key innovations that have helped us fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of vaccine containing mRNA sequences which can produce proteins relevant to certain diseases. In the case of covid-19 the protein of interest was the spike protein inducing immune responses. Such vaccines may be applied in combating other diseases, as we Moderna and BioNTech have shown promise in doing.  

Moderna, launched a collaborative project with Merck in 2022 to develop an mRNA vaccine combined with existing antibodies therapy that targets melanoma, a lethal type of skin cancer. The mRNA sequence here can produce a protein that triggers T-cell actions relevant to melanoma.  

“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,” said Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s Chief Executive Officer in a statement.

At the end of last year, the research team announced promising results of pivotal trials. The vaccines can reduce the risk of death, progress or reoccurrence of cancer following resection of the tumor with higher efficacy than the monotherapy. It can even provide ‘a new paradigm in the treatment of cancer patients,’ according to Paul Burton, the chief medical officer of Moderna, as told to Reuters. 


Headed into the new year, the NHS also launched a partnership with BioNTech that focuses explicitly on personalized cancer treatment, prioritizing recognizing patients and allowing them access to mRNA cancer vaccine trials.  

Critiques have also been made towards such new therapies for a reason similar to other novel therapies in fighting cancer: the relatively low cost-effectiveness followed by limited accessibility to patients. Meanwhile, proteins involved in cancer treatment are not as identifiable as the spike protein we’ve mentioned. Designing an mRNA vaccine for cancer usually requires genome sequencing to detect variations resulting in abnormal tumor proteins or immune responses in cancer. Such prior sequencing can be time-consuming while limiting the use of mRNA vaccines for certain types of cancer.  

Despite its limitation, the attempt to expand the application of mRNA vaccines into other medicine sectors might as well be successful. And with the collaboration between BioNTech and the NHS, we can expect more clinical trials for these mRNA vaccines this year.