The mRNA vaccine technology may hold the key to developing personalized cancer treatments

At CES 2023, the CEO of Moderna discussed mRNA technology.
Paul Ratner
Evolution of nanotechnology
Evolution of nanotechnology

Yuuji/iStock 

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be a terrible plight on the world. But if there’s any silver lining in what has happened, the deadly worldwide plague has brought about advancements in medicine created to fight it that may have transformational impacts well past the pandemic. 

In a conversation during CES 2023, one of the world’s eminent tech gatherings, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel discussed the potential to utilize mRNA technology at the basis of groundbreaking Covid vaccines, developed with unprecedented speed, to create personalized cancer treatments. The conversation “Personalized Medicine: The Future of Cancer Treatment is Not One-Size Fits All” was led by Stephen Klasko, executive in residence at General Catalyst and advisor at Stel Life.

The mRNA difference

Contrary to vaccines that use a weakened or inactivated germ to trigger an immune response, mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid ) vaccines use lab-created molecules to instruct the cells of our body on how to make a protein triggering an immune response. This response of the immune system creates antibodies that help protect us from being infected.

Bancel shared that when he was first approached about using mRNA to inject patients, so “people would make their own drugs on demand in their body, my reaction was — you guys are crazy.” 

It’s like science fiction, quipped Klasko. 

Bancel didn’t think the mRNA approach would work, giving it only a 5% chance of success. But as the science advanced, he became convinced of the mRNA potential. If you look ahead twenty to forty years, “it could change medicine forever, “ he said. 

There are 226 viruses known to affect humans today, explained Bancel. But there are only vaccines in existence against about 20. So there’s a huge gap in how many diseases can still be prevented.

Bancel further elaborated on how the development of the Moderna Covid vaccine and the advanced mRNA technology came to be implemented. He spoke of how at first he thought Covid-19 was going to be a SARS-like virus, without the dramatic worldwide effect. But as more information became available in early 2020, he realized that the pandemic was going to be comparable to the Spanish Flu of 1918. 

“It’s going to be everywhere. It’s going to be really bad. And millions of people are going to die,” he shared.   

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The miracle vaccine

As Moderna mobilized to respond to the global threat, Barcel called the development of the Covid vaccine “a team effort.” He thanked the FDA, civil servants and all the collaborators. Everyone involved understood it was a life and death issue. 

“Every hour mattered and everybody behaved like every hour mattered,' confided Barcel.

One great challenge of development was not having the Covid virus actually in the lab at the start of their work. One big help was the government funding — it was the key enabler they needed to launch clinical studies so quickly. The previous fastest vaccine development (of the mumps vaccine) took four years while this one took under a year. 

The Moderna CEO also addressed the virtual “miracle,” as Klasko called it, of manufacturing and distribution of so many vaccine doses. 

In 2019, for the entire year, they made 100,000 doses. The next year they aimed to make a billion. Moderna had to take on new partners and to scale up their operation to manufacture such an immense amount of medicine. 

Can mRNA technology beat cancer? 

Bancel dispelled the myth that the development of the cancer vaccine it was working on prior to Covid was sped up by the pandemic. In fact, it was seriously delayed. Because of Covid-related restrictions, new patients were not available to enroll in cancer studies, which require 12 months of observation,

But Moderna persevered in its goal of using mRNA tech to fight cancer and recently announced promising results of a personalized mRNA cancer vaccine, developed with Merck, made for patients with melanoma. Bancel described how a personalized vaccine works -- they compare the entire DNA sequencing of the cancer cell to a healthy cell of the patient, base by base, then use AI to find all the mutations on the outside of the cancer cell. The process then produces mRNA instructions to educate the immune system to fight these mutations. In this way, it is possible to produce a vaccine individualized for every human being. 

Klasko pointed out that the body then figures out how to fight the illness rather than being treated in such a way where healthy cells are targeted along with the sick ones (like in chemotherapy).

Bancel believes this approach would work for other illnesses. Over the next five years, they aim to address lung cancer, flu, RSV, HIV, carry out advanced phase 3 trials of melanoma, and more.