Why is there no vaccine for cancer like other diseases? A lot of people have always wondered why thousands of people suffering from cancer could not be treated with a vaccine. Many multinational medical companies have been doing research to develop a vaccine for cancer for decades. Now, Moderna has become an exceptional medical ally to the world by announcing its first-ever vaccine for melanoma: the mRNA vaccine.
On December 13th 2022, Moderna and Merck Co. Jointly announced that they have successfully completed the phase 2 testing of their jointly developed mRNA vaccine for ‘cancer.’ But what is the exclusivity in this announcement that many other companies with all their top-class researchers could not achieve?
Let’s understand what cancer is, how it affects the body, and whether the mRNA vaccine announced by Moderna can help the world fight against cancer.
What Is Cancer and Its History
Before we find out about the mRNA vaccine, let’s learn a little about cancer, and what its history has been like.
Source / History of Cancer and cancer vaccine
Did you know that there are more than 200 types of cancers that have been diagnosed in the human body? Cancer is an umbrella term for the uncontrollable growth of cells in a body part and when they start spreading across the body. There are five main groups of cancers according to the type of cell that starts showing abnormality.
Now, aren’t cells the smallest functional unit of the body that make up the whole organism? How can the spreading of cells cause a person to suffer from health ailments and even fatality?
Cells are bound to a lifetime of growth until they become old and eventually die on their own. This cycle keeps repeating until the human body dies. But sometimes, old or damaged cells do not die in a particular part of the body and instead start spreading either in one place or may travel to other parts as well. These damaged cells and their spread can cause a whole tissue to become infected and is called a tumor. This is how the spread of cancer in the body starts.
The history of cancer dates back to 3000 BC and is found to be the first time described by the Egyptians. Its reference is found in the book ‘Edwin Smith Papyrus’ which is an Egyptian book on trauma surgery. The word ‘cancer’ originated from the description by Hippocrates. He is called the ‘Father of Modern Medicine’ and described this tumor-causing disease as ‘carcinos’ or ‘carcinoma.’
Later on, Celsus was the one who translated these Greek words into cancer. Another Roman Physician, Galen used the word Oncos, to describe cancer and that is where the foundation of study of cancer, Oncology, was laid.
Now we go on to learn about Moderna and the mRNA vaccine.
Moderna and Merck’s Feat
Source / Moderna Cancer Vaccine
So we have a basic understanding of how cancer forms in our body this far into the article, and we can understand that it is the cells themselves trying to cause problems in the body. For years, scientists have not been able to find a permanent cure for cancer because of its ability to dodge immune responses. Cancer cells tend to spread at an enormous rate and have the ability to bypass the body’s immune response. This is why patients suffering from any type of cancer start to become weak, turn pale and cannot fight normal diseases like flu easily.
The primary treatment for cancer patients has been chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor containing cancer cells. But the efficiency of getting cured of cancer by this method has always been fairly low because of reoccurrence of cancer cells.
According to the announcement made by Moderna, the company has made a messenger RNA or mRNA vaccine to treat melanoma in patients who have gotten their tumors removed. In the phase 2 of their clinical trials, they combined their mRNA vaccine shot with Merck’s checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda. The results of these trials were that the deaths or recurrence of the cancer cells was reduced by 44% in stage 3 and 4 patients. The vaccine was tried upon patients who had their tumors removed but still had high chances of reoccurrence.
This mRNA vaccine jointly developed by these two companies is more of a personalized cancer vaccine shot for cancer patients. Now what does personalized cancer vaccine mean? Well, let’s take a look at the whole working of Moderna’s vaccine.
Personalized Cancer Vaccine : mRNA Vaccine
Cancer patients are kept under careful observation by doctors and have to undergo chemotherapy. The chemotherapy is done on a personalized basis according to the condition of the patient. This means that the process of injecting chemicals for killing cancer cells is done purely after recording the stats of each patient’s body.
Source / Moderna mRNA vaccine – vaccine that prevents cancer
Now, the concept of personalized cancer vaccine is similar to this kind of treatment for cancer patients. The mechanism of this vaccine is tailored to each patient’s body. The mRNA sequence that it delivers to the cancer affected area is calculated before the vaccine is injected into the body of a patient. To simply understand this, you can take an example of a normal vaccine. It works by injecting weak or dead pathogens into the body which the immune system responds to. It makes antibodies for the specific pathogen and kills it to form immunity.
Similarly, the Moderna cancer vaccine or the mRNA vaccine introduces a piece of mRNA protein which contains SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. It is a ‘training purpose based’ protein for the body similar to cancer cells. The body’s immunity response then starts to produce the same protein itself and learns to recognize this protein to fight off the cancer cells. The spike protein added in the vaccine has personalized tumor specific mutations. These mutations are called neoantigens and the body creates more of such neoantigens which therefore helps in generating immune cells for melanoma.
Does This Mean Cancer Is Curable?
Well, to answer this question in a concise way – it is yet far from a complete cure for cancer. The personalized cancer vaccine currently developed by Moderna is only for treatment of melanoma, a serious type of skin cancer. “The successes of melanoma don’t effortlessly translate into the more common solid tumors, like lung, colon, prostate, breast, and ovary, which are the big five,” says Allen from Gritstone Oncology, a firm associated with the research and treatment of cancer.
According to him, melanoma is a kind of cancer that naturally elicits a strong immune response from the body. This is not the case with other kinds of cancer cells. This is why, success of the Moderna cancer vaccine cannot be considered as the final step to curing cancer. He stated that it is an important milestone to achieving the cure for cancer, but the road is far from the end point. Moderna’s mRNA cancer vaccine is still going to be taken to further trials and the results of those trials will strengthen the base to finally finding a cure to cancer, once and for all.
mRNA Vaccines for Cancer: The Future
Now that you have learned everything about cancer, the mRNA vaccine that prevents cancer and the way it does so, you must be filled with a lot of enthusiasm. The success of this mRNA cancer vaccine has laid the foundation for optimism amongst lots of other research facilities. The phase three trials for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine will begin in 2023 as they still wish to promote the efficacy of this vaccine amongst cancer patients.
Research has always helped this world in tackling a multitude of problems and that is why Moderna’s mRNA vaccine is a stepping stone to future success. One day, the world will be free of all kinds of cancers and people will not have to leave this planet after years of chemicals being injected into their bodies.
If you wish to learn more about the mRNA vaccine and its functioning, you can watch this exciting video for the same.