Panelists:Matthew Ong, Associate Editor,The Cancer Letter, 

  • Jonathan Wosen, West Coast biotech and life sciences reporter, STAT News,
  • Mahesh Yadav, senior principal scientist, Genentech 
  • Michelle Brownexecutive director and program leader, oncology, Moderna

By Natalie Krebs

Thanks to their success during the pandemic, most people equate mRNA vaccines with COVID-19. However, scientists are using the technology to discover ways to treat a variety of diseases including cancer and cystic fibrosis.

During this session, a panel of experts highlighted a few of the recent promising medical trials using mRNA vaccines.

The use of mRNA vaccines burst into public view following the use of the technology in reducing severe illness and death from the coronavirus, but the development of the technology dates back to the 1960s, said panelist Jonathan Wosen, the West Coast biotech and life sciences reporter at STAT News.

mRNA vaccines aren’t limited to targeting viruses, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. It can be used to direct the immune system to attack cancer cells, he said.

BioNTech, which developed a COVID-19 vaccination, is also working on mRNA vaccine trials that target melanoma and colon cancer.

The technology also shows promise for diseases caused when cells don’t make enough of a certain protein like cystic fibrosis, Wosen said. mRNA vaccines could be used to replace the therapeutic protein in cells.

“It’s very exciting to see how far we’ve come in a short period of time,” said panelist Michelle Brown, the executive director and program leader of oncology at Moderna.

Moderna is running clinical trials using mRNA technology in melanoma patients, she said.

Unlike the COVID-19 vaccine, which is preventative, cancer vaccines are being developed as therapeutic tools to help treat those who already have the disease.

Moderna is creating personalized cancer vaccines for melanoma patients by taking samples of tumor and normal tissues to identify tumor-related mutations that can be targeted by mRNA technology, Brown said.

Though it’s still in early stages, she said trials have shown great promise so far in reducing rates of recurrence and death in late-stage melanoma patients.

Mahesh Yadav, a senior principal scientist at Genentech, said they are conducting trials using personalized mRNA vaccines to target colorectal cancer as well as aggressive cancers like pancreatic cancer, which typically doesn’t respond well to treatment and has a low five-year survival rate.

Yadav said cancer causes cell mutations that are unique to each person, and the strength of mRNA vaccines is that they are able to be personalized to each patient unlike current chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments.

“As a scientist, it’s really nice to see it make a difference in cancer patients,” Yadev said.

Natalie Krebs is the health reporter for Iowa Public Radio.