Results presented by US researchers at a medical meeting suggest that adding a personalized cancer vaccine based on mRNA technology to Keytruda, which boosts the immune response, could extend the time patients have without relapse or death, said Dr Jeffrey Weber of the NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center.
“From the point of view of general cancer therapy, this is a potentially major breakthrough,” said Dr. Ryan Sullivan, a melanoma expert at Mass General Cancer who worked on the study, Reuters notes.
Additional data will be presented at a future medical meeting and published in a specialized journal.
The Merck/Moderna collaboration is one of several combining powerful drugs that unleash the immune system to target cancers with mRNA vaccine technology.
BioNTech and Gritstone Bio are working on competing cancer vaccines based on mRNA technology.
The vaccine is created based on an analysis of a patient’s tumors after surgical removal. Vaccines are designed to train the immune system to recognize and attack specific mutations in cancer cells.
Merck’s Keytruda, which is approved to treat melanoma and many other cancers, belongs to a class of widely used immunotherapies known as checkpoint inhibitors, designed to disable the PD-1 protein, or death 1, which helps cancer evade the immune system.
Men and women with a high risk of melanoma recurrence were enrolled in the study.
Among the 107 study subjects who received both the experimental vaccine, mRNA-4157/V940, and Keytruda, cancer returned in 24 subjects (22.4%) within two years of follow-up, compared with 20 of 50 ( 40%) who received only Keytruda.
Severe side effects were similar between the two arms of the study, the scientists reported. Fatigue was the most common side effect reported by patients specifically associated with the vaccine.
It could take three or four years before the results of larger studies are known, Eliav Barr, Merck’s head of global clinical development and chief medical officer, said in an interview.
Barr said it took about eight weeks to design a personalized mRNA vaccine for each patient.
In the past, similar experimental cancer vaccines have been developed that target a single tumor mutation, or neoantigen.
Moderna’s mRNA technology allowed the inclusion of up to 34 neoantigens, which Barr called “amazing.”
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