At least some of the research and development that produced COVID-19 vaccines could shape cancer cures in the future. Moderna, a relatively small biotech company that found prominence during the pandemic, is already headed down that path.

mRNA Cancer Vaccines: The Next Step

Modern, in partnership with a company called MSD, published findings from a clinical trial in December 2022. The work focused on the development and efficacy of a messenger RNA cancer vaccine. Used simultaneously with immunotherapy treatments that are already available, the mRNA vaccine was effective in advanced melanoma patients. After patients had tumors removed, the treatment was 44% effective in reducing cancer reoccurrence or death.

A 44% success rate is far from a cure, but Moderna’s research has spurred another expert COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer, BioNTech to pursue a similar program.

NHS Partners with BioNTech

In 2023, the UK’s National Health Service announced a partnership with BioNTech with the goal of “fast-tracking” mRNA cancer vaccines, with a final treatment anticipated by 2030. Public trials for approved cancer patients are expected to start by the end of the year.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA wasn’t considered a likely candidate for cancer treatments. With billions of dollars invested and potentially millions of lives saved, the science has advanced in just three years which would have otherwise taken a decade or more.

The key difference will be intent. Unlike COVID-19 vaccines, an mRNA cancer vaccine focuses on treatment rather than prevention. In most cases, the treatment will contain a personalized vaccine designed to arm the patient’s immune system to battle a specific type of cancer. This would offer immediate health benefits and reduce the risk of recurrence.

Colorectal cancer, one of the types of cancer that may benefit from this research, sees a relapse rate between 30-40%. An mRNA cancer vaccine would target specific types of cancer and limit tumor growth.

Cancer Is Personal. And That May Be the Cure.

The key element of mRNA cancer vaccines is developing a personalized treatment for every patient. That isn’t cost-effective – yet. As this research and efforts like it makes incremental advances, cancer prevention remains the most effective way to reduce cancer diagnoses and save lives. Learn how our work supports cancer prevention programs and education – and how you can get involved.