Cancer Vaccine Looks Promising

Trials of mRNA treatments are going well.

From a completely unrelated story, I was alerted to a stunning report in SEMAFOR (“Hopes rise for mRNA cancer vaccine after Moderna trial shows promise“):

Hopes for a successful cancer vaccine were boosted this week after pharma company Moderna announced that its mRNA cancer vaccine, which was developed to target melanoma, might also treat a form of head and neck cancer. Currently, mRNA vaccines are only approved for treating COVID, though researchers are racing to apply the technology to other diseases.

The development, which sent Moderna’s share price soaring, adds to scientists’ recent discoveries of more ways to use cutting-edge messenger RNA technology, expanding on the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data from an early trial showed a greater overall survival rate for patients who took Moderna’s cancer vaccine alongside immunotherapy treatments, the pharma giant said.

The pandemic prompted the rapid advancement of mRNA vaccines, which give the body instructions for manufacturing bits of pathogens so that it recognizes them in future.

This is followed by snippets from the National Cancer Institute, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Nature, and other highly credible sources. I’m combining them here for ease of reading.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around mRNA right now,” a doctor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute said in 2022, during the COVID-spurred boom in vaccine development. mRNA vaccines beyond Moderna’s have shown promise in early trials, with researchers also reporting a positive response from patients with pancreatic cancer. An mRNA vaccine for pancreatic cancer recently showed promise in early clinical trials, seemingly reducing the risk of the cancer returning in patients who had surgery to address it.

“From a scientific point of view, we are entering the golden age of vaccines,” former Biden administration COVID response coordinator Ashish Jha told Axios last month, though he cautioned that we’re also entering a time of extreme vaccine hesitancy. “That contrast — that contradiction, almost — is very odd and we have a lot of work to do,” Jha said.

And mRNA innovations don’t stop at traditional medical development; machine learning researchers are using AI language models to decode mRNA and try to make more effective vaccines.

mRNA technology may also be able to treat propionic acidaemia, a rare, life-threatening metabolic disorder where patients can’t digest certain proteins and fats because they’re unable to produce the necessary enzyme. But the promising new drug from Moderna helps the body make that enzyme, raising hopes of a new class of drugs that could treat a wide range of conditions. A physiologist told Live Science the development was “very encouraging,” saying it provides hope for treating other similar diseases. However, physicians warned Nature that this development was just “a first step in the right direction.”

This is getting next to no play elsewhere. Indeed, the latest reports from AP and NYT mentioning mRNA at all are from last October, when Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work. WaPo reported that as well, of course, but also had a January 2024 report about the Florida surgeon general calling for an end to mRNA vaccines because, well, Florida. Reuters is touting the jump in Moderna stock prices but not the results themselves.

So, two things.

First and most obviously, caution is warranted. Moderna obviously has a huge stake in the outcome here and the announcement is already doing wonders for its stock prices. This is still early days in the trial. But it sounds promising, indeed.

Second, and more depressingly, it occurred to me even before I was reminded of the Florida story that, because of the hysterical politicization surrounding the COVID vaccines, we could wind up in a society where Democrats and blue staters are relatively free of the scourge of cancer while Republicans and red staters continue to die needlessly.

FILED UNDER: Health, Science & Technology, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Lounsbury says:

    As a factual matter, expression of the advance in terms of cancer as a singular thing is an analytical error. The advance is in respect to a specific form and subset, which is of course quite potenitally important itself.
    Cancers in the plural are not a singular phenomena (other than the commonlity of natural cell-death/limitation mechanisms going wrong), not a singular class, and so one should avoid seeing one line of development as a resolution to “cancer” but certainly for cancers sharing the same class.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Lounsbury: Sure. But pancreatic cancer is among the most likely to be fatal and curing one is surely promising in figuring out how to cure others.

  3. Lounsbury says:

    @James Joyner: If the specific cellular mechanisms / pathways are related, but what people popularly call cancer appear to have quite diverse triggers – a resolution of one class of cancer or cell class may or may not extrapolate broadly beyond.
    It is like the word “cold” or “flu” in common usage – popular langauge conflates rather different diseases as one thing, when they are not. This is in error relative to expectations.

    But general greater mastery of the cellular genetic manipulation will certainly allow paths to cures in the plural.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    …Republicans and red staters continue to die needlessly.

    Sorry to be cynical, but you say that like it’s a problem. If a patient rejects a treatment for “reasons,” the consequences are on them.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: First, being ignorant shouldn’t be a capital offense. Second, there are a lot of Democrats and other non-crazies in red states.

  6. Kathy says:

    It helps to understand the technology and science.

    mRNA is what living beings use to pass instructions from DNA in the nucleus to ribosomes in the cell body. The latter then use the info in the mRNA to make proteins. Proteins do a lot of the work in the cells.

    This has worked well for vaccines, because the immune system pretty much works on recognizing proteins in cells, pathogens, and other micro-organisms. The mRNA COVID vaccines, for example, carry instructions to make the SARS-CoV2 spike protein. So much of it gets into cells, that they are damaged and emit cytokines and other markers, which set the immune system in motion.

    There’s reason to think this can work for other pathogens. in fact, I believe such mRNA vaccines have been developed for use in animals, before they were developed for use in people, and not just for the trump disease.

    The immune system can and does deal with cancer, but not always. It’s a really complicated matter, well past the common antibody understanding of immunity. For instance, one form of immunotherapy consists in making an antibody that will block receptors on T cells, that keep them from attacking some types of cancer.

    Not all treatments based on mRNA will be vaccines, either. I’ve wondered if they can work in genetic diseases where the problem is the body doesn’t make a certain protein, or not enough of it, or makes it abnormally.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: While I agree with the sentiment you are trying to express, this brought me up short:

    First, being ignorant shouldn’t be a capital offense.

    I don’t know about “should” but it definitely “is” and has been throughout all of history.

  8. steve says:

    Not all that worried about red staters not accepting this. The hate for m-RNA vaccines is not deeply embedded, it’s just another way to stick it to the libs, which is basically GOP policy right now. If it works they will use it. Their next Messiah will declare it is good and will actually blame Democrats for forcing them believe that m-RNA vaccines are bad.


  9. Kathy says:


    It’s not so much ignorance, as it is people turning to unreliable sources for important information.


    There seems to be a drop off in childhood vaccinations, particularly the MMR vaccine, as seen in an increase in measles cases. To some extent, this predates the use of COVID vaccines.

  10. Liberal Capitalist says:

    …we could wind up in a society where Democrats and blue staters are relatively free of the scourge of cancer while Republicans and red staters continue to die needlessly.

    Darwin would say that it is not needlessly, but part of the expected process of evolution.

    Measles were eradicated in the USA… but no longer, because the intentionally ignorant have “done their own research.”

    HPV vaccines are still not adopted by many as it has been vilified as somehow promoting promiscuity in teens (as if teens need any reasons to be promiscuous.)

    mRNA as a way to fight covid has been dragged through the mud. This may take a generation or two to resolve and adopt if it becomes a way to defeat many developing cancers. By then, many will, of course, die needlessly via traditional horrific treatments.

    A single death is a tragedy. Thousands or millions are… a sociological event.

    Darwin said:

    It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change, that lives within the means available and works co-operatively against common threats.

    That last section… not MAGA.