Moderna and pharmaceutical giant Merck have been partnering on a possible melanoma vaccine since 2016. Yesterday they announced progress in developing the preventative shot for a deadly form of skin cancer. The companies reported their findings on a small study of patients who had the cancer surgically removed. They claim a combination of the vaccine and Keytruda had led to statistically significant improvement in survival rates, before the cancer returned in patients with advanced melanoma.
“We are very excited, we are moving very quickly with Merck onto phase 3 for this study,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said. All clinical trails for new medications and vaccines go through serval stages of testing to evaluate their efficiency before being released. Phase 3 trails are the largest and most expensive stage of these trials. But it is also one of the last stages before the vaccine is put in front of regulators to review.
Most know Moderna for one of the two main vaccines to protect against COVID-19, Spikevax. And like Spikevax, their skin cancer vaccine uses mRNA technology. This technology allows a patient’s immune system to recognize and respond to specific mutations in the DNA of their tumor. Merck’s Keytruda immunotherapy treatment has already been approved to treat multiple forms of cancer. It helps to prime the body’s immune system to detect and fight tumor cells.
In a clinical trail involving 157 people, scientist compared patients who used Keytruda alone against those that used it with the melanoma vaccine. They claim that the group that took both saw a 44% reduction in the risk of death or cancer returning. The treatment(s) also continue out for about a year for both groups. That is unless the disease came back or the side-effects became too severe to continue treatment.
Merck and Moderna currently expect to start a phase 3 study next year. They also plan to expand their approach to other tumor types.