Moderna’s cancer vaccine lowered the risk of death or recurrence from skin cancer in an interim study.
Analysts say the long-term success of the vaccine has yet to be proven.
“Now we are an oncology company,” Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, told Insider.
The biotech company Moderna has just announced significant progress in its efforts to treat cancer.
Moderna said Tuesday that its personalized cancer vaccination program succeeded in a midstage study of skin cancer patients, confirming that its messenger RNA technology could be a game changer beyond COVID-19 vaccines. Investors were thrilled by the news, which sent Moderna’s share price up 21% by Tuesday afternoon.
The recent study treated 157 patients with severe cases of melanoma, a common form of skin cancer. The patients underwent surgery to remove their cancer and were then treated with either Merck’s cancer drug Keytruda alone, the current standard of care, or the Keytruda and Moderna vaccine. Moderna designed each vaccine based on the unique DNA of each person’s tumor through a largely automated lab process. The group that received the Moderna vaccine had a 44% reduction in cancer recurrences and death compared to the trial participants who just received Keytruda.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech rose to prominence in 2020 by developing one of the first coronavirus vaccines using its mRNA technology. The coronavirus vaccine was the first approved product for Moderna, which was founded in 2010. Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, compared the results of the cancer research to the first outbreak of COVID-19, when Moderna rushed to respond and develop a vaccine.
“It’s a COVID-like moment for me dating back to January 2020,” he told Insider. “It’s the same for me. The enemy now is cancer. We know the technology works.”
Moderna’s CEO sees a bright future for cancer vaccines
Bancel said Moderna’s mRNA approach is key to its success. Moderna uses mRNA to get into immune cells and instruct those cells to produce certain proteins that can help fight that person’s cancer. Bancel said he sees huge potential for this approach, with a market that could surpass his coronavirus vaccine.
“This could be as big as Keytruda or bigger,” he added, referring to Merck’s blockbuster cancer therapy that generated $15.5 billion in sales in the first nine months of 2022.
“Now we are an oncology company,” Bancel said, “and perhaps one of the largest oncology companies in the future.”
Bancel said Moderna and its partner, Merck, would launch multiple late-stage studies in 2023 to test the cancer vaccine not only in melanoma patients, but other types of cancer as well. Merck paid $250 million earlier this year to co-develop Moderna’s vaccine, extending a collaboration between the two drugmakers that began in 2016.
But these trials will likely take years to complete, Bancel acknowledged, meaning potential FDA approval and commercial launch won’t happen anytime soon.
Analysts are excited but cautious about the vaccine’s long-term success
Daina Graybosch, an SVB Securities analyst who follows Merck, said in a note Tuesday that the results beat her expectations, but she wants to see more detailed results than what was provided in Moderna and Merck’s press release. Study results have yet to be presented at a conference or published in a journal. Graybosch warned that other experimental cancer drugs showed promise in phase 2 trials but disappointed in phase 3.
Brad Loncar, a biotech investor who runs an exchange-traded fund that tracks immuno-oncology companies, told Insider that Moderna made a good decision by focusing on a smaller patient group who first had surgery to remove their cancer. But Loncar added that other types of cancer are more difficult to treat than melanoma, which he called a “low-hanging fruit” for immunotherapies.
“The fact that it was successful in melanoma is certainly no guarantee that it will be successful in other cancers,” Loncar said.
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