In Brief
Moderna Therapeutics wants to create a cancer vaccine using messenger RNA. This week, it began testing the treatment on its first human subject.

Moderna Medicine

Moderna Therapeutics has taken a major step forward in its efforts to produce a cancer vaccine based on the growing volume of research on messenger RNA (mRNA). The company has launched a study into the treatment’s effectiveness, administering the vaccine to its first human subject.

In recent years, the cost of sequencing the entire genome has fallen dramatically. Moderna is making full use of this ability when it comes to its potentially groundbreaking vaccine.

The company took a 1-millimeter cube of cancer tissue taken from the lung of the subject of the trial. Its genetic code was scanned and compared to a blood sample, which helped track down the changes that caused the cancer.

This information was used to produce a list of 20 protein targets that were tailored to the patient’s cancer. Scientists constructed DNA templates to make the necessary edits, then had them transcribed to RNA that would be administered via an injection.

“An individualized medicine designed to help each patient’s immune system better recognize cancer as foreign and attack it would be a critical addition to oncologists’ treatment arsenal, potentially helping many more patients respond more effectively to treatment,” said Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, a principal investigator on the study, in a press release.

It’s estimated that there will be 23.6 million new cases of cancer reported every year by 2030, so work like this can’t come soon enough.

Tailor-Made Cancer Vaccine

The idea of a cancer vaccine isn’t particularly new, but the capacity to produce treatments that are customized to a particular patient’s needs has come about relatively recently. Previous trials of a similar treatment have proven promising, so there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about Moderna’s chances to create something truly remarkable.

That said, there are some important caveats. For one, there’s the questions of pricing – given how new this treatment is, and the fact that it has to be adapted to the individual, it’s likely that it will be very expensive. Moderna hasn’t yet announced what it expects to charge for the vaccine.

The company itself has also been subject to some criticism for an over-reliance on mRNA, described as a “one-size-fits-all” approach in a report from Bloomberg. Moderna specializes in using the molecules, which have shown to have significant potential, but the fact is that the technology is unproven. It can be difficult to prevent the immune system from killing them off.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before the vaccine is ready for widespread usage. For the time being, it’s being trialled with subjects who have already had their tumors removed. If the initial tests go well, then the sample will be expanded to include patients who have active cancer.

Up to 90 patients are expected to take part in the trial, which will yield initial results by the end of 2018.