Moderna’s cancer vaccine reduced the risk of death or skin cancer recurrence in an interim study.
Analysts say the vaccine’s long-term success has yet to be proven.
“We are now a cancer company,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told Insider.
Biotech company Moderna just announced significant progress in its efforts to treat cancer.
Moderna said on Tuesday that its personalized cancer vaccine program succeeded in an interim study of skin cancer patients, saying its messenger RNA technology may be a game changer beyond COVID-19 vaccines. Investors were delighted with the news, sending Moderna’s share price up 21% by noon on Tuesday.
The recent study treated 157 patients with severe cases of melanoma, a common type of skin cancer. The patients had surgery to remove the cancer and then received treatment with only Merck’s cancer drug Keytruda, the current standard of care, or vaccine from Keytruda and Moderna. Moderna designed each vaccine on each person’s unique tumor DNA through a largely automated laboratory process. The group that received Moderna’s vaccine had a 44 percent reduction in the rate of cancer recurrence and death compared to study 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. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel compared the cancer study results to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, when Moderna rushed to respond and develop a vaccine.
“It’s, for me, a COVID-like moment going back to January 2020,” she told Insider. “It’s the same for me. The enemy now is cancer. We know the technology works.”
Moderna CEO sees bright future for cancer vaccines
Bancel said Moderna’s mRNA approach is key to its success. Moderna uses mRNA to enter immune cells and instruct those cells to make particular proteins that can help fight that person’s cancer. Bancel said he sees huge potential for this approach, with a market that could outstrip his coronavirus vaccine.
“This could be as big as Keytruda or bigger,” he added, referring to Merck’s blockbuster cancer therapy that brought in $15.5 billion in sales in the first nine months of 2022.
“We’re an oncology company now,” Bancel said, “and we could be one of the largest oncology companies down the road.”
Bancel said Moderna and its partner, Merck, will launch several late-stage trials in 2023 to test the cancer vaccine not only in patients with melanoma but other cancers as well. Merck paid $250 million earlier this year to jointly develop Moderna’s vaccine, extending a partnership between the two drugmakers that began in 2016.
But these studies will likely take years to complete, Bancel acknowledged, meaning potential FDA approval and commercial launch won’t happen in the foreseeable future.
Analysts are enthusiastic but cautious about the vaccine’s long-term success
Daina Graybosch, an analyst at SVB Securities which covers Merck, said in a note on Tuesday that results exceeded her expectations, but she wants to see more detailed results than those provided in Moderna’s and Merck’s news release. The study results have yet to be presented at a conference or published in a journal. Graybosch warned that other experimental cancer drugs have shown promise in Phase 2 trials only to disappoint in Phase 3.
Brad Loncar, a biotech investor who manages a publicly traded fund that monitors immuno-oncology companies, told Insider that Moderna made a good decision by focusing on a smaller patient group who had surgery to remove earlier the cancer. But Loncar added that other cancers are more difficult to treat than melanoma, which he called a “low fruit” for immunotherapies.
“The fact that it has been successful in melanoma is definitely not a guarantee that it will be successful in other types of cancer,” Loncar said.
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