The record-breaking 18-month dash to develop a COVID-19 vaccine could accelerate cancer vaccines by the end of the decade. Similar vaccines could treat autoimmune, cardiovascular and other forms of diseases along the same timeline.

So claims Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr. Paul Burton. The US pharmaceutical company is building on its pandemic-era work to develop custom cancer vaccines designed to identify the specific mutations driving cancerous growth and delivering a messenger RNA (mRNA) that will help cells create the appropriate antigen.

How mRNA Cancer Vaccines Could Work

The science has progressed rapidly thanks to the billions of dollars invested to create a COVID-19 vaccine. That same research, conducted by Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, has pushed cancer and other vaccine research ahead by several years or even decades.

The mRNA molecule informs cells on the specifics of building proteins. In a sense, the mRNA shows the body’s cells what to watch for and how to defeat it. Crucially, this process reduces the risk of harming healthy cells.

In most cases, the process starts by identifying the protein fragments on the surface of the cancer cells, which are not present in healthy cells through a biopsy. Researchers then create specific mRNA that can teach the body how to create the appropriate antigens.

Scientists are already using machine learning algorithms to identify the proteins present on cancer cells. Armed with the resultant data, doctors can then choose the right mRNA and package it in a customized vaccine.

How Effective Is the Vaccine?

Late-stage trial data is encouraging. In January, Moderna announced its experimental mRNA for RSV was 83.7% effective in adults 60 and older. The FDA granted Moderna a breakthrough therapy designation, which allows for accelerated regulatory review. Data on specific types of cancer isn’t available, though trials are in the works.

Pfizer is partnering with BioNTech and following a similar development strategy. That multiple pharma giants are eagerly pursuing research bodes well that these solutions could arrive quickly.

Prevention Matters, Too

Cancer prevention is a viable and effective solution right now. Prioritizing cancer prevention is an accessible option for every family, and we’re protecting those families with advocacy and education across the country. Support our work and get moving with us! Sign up for the 2023 Less Cancer Hike and Bike America June 2 – July 2.