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Jun 3, 2024, 3:26pm EDT
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Experimental mRNA vaccines gain steam with promising cancer trial results

Insights from TIME, The Washington Post, MIT Technology Review

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Modern vaccines
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
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The News

Pharmaceutical giants Moderna and Merck announced promising results from a clinical trial testing a combined treatment of an mRNA vaccine and immunotherapy for skin cancer. Melanoma patients who received monthly mRNA vaccines and Merck’s Keytruda immunotherapy had lower chances of cancer recurrence and spread, as well as higher survival rates, than those who received Keytruda alone.

The vaccines use messenger RNA — essential molecules that help convert the information in DNA to proteins — to expose the body to virus or cancer proteins and trigger an immune response.

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The results are the latest boost for mRNA vaccines, which were first used to prevent COVID-19, and come amid a flurry of approvals by the US Food and Drug Administration for mRNA vaccines, including for the respiratory illness RSV.

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Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

COVID-19 put mRNA vaccine development into hyperdrive

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Sources:  
MIT Technology Review, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, The Conversation

Scientists had been working on mRNA-based treatments and vaccines for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted an “astonishingly fast turnaround” in developing and deploying the vaccines, MIT Technology Review noted. COVID-19 was “a brand-new virus, so it opened the way to apply these newer methods,” an immunology professor at Johns Hopkins University said, initiating rapid vaccine development. Since mRNA drugs are easily programmable, biotech companies like Moderna are now developing mRNA vaccines for malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, Zika, and various cancers.


Modern-Merck trial results hold promise for cancer immunotherapy

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Sources:  
TIME, The Guardian, BBC

The mRNA jab can be personalized to activate an anti-tumor response based upon the patient’s unique cancer mutations, making it “far cleverer in some senses than a vaccine,” Heather Shaw, the national coordinating investigator for the melanoma trials, said. So far, trial results suggest mRNA technology “will change cancer treatment in the years ahead,” the president of Moderna told TIME, noting that triggered immune responses and longer survival rates could mean that they have “effectively eliminated tumor cells.” Efforts are already underway for 200 patients in the US and Europe to receive personalized cancer vaccine trials, which may “help thousands, if not millions of people, so that they can have hope,” one patient told the BBC.

Access to mRNA technology is contentious

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Sources:  
The Washington Post, Politico, Reuters

In order to remedy vaccine apartheid that made the Global South reliant on the North, the World Health Organization created the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, building mRNA research laboratories in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, South Africa, Senegal and Tunisia to target diseases such as tuberculosis, rift valley fever and leishmaniasis. Ultimately, “it is in everyone’s best interest if more places can find solutions to their own regional problems,” one virologist commented in The Washington Post. While Moderna has promised to not enforce its coronavirus patents, which would help other countries catch up, in some places like China the preference is for domestic mRNA vaccine development.

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