Merck and Moderna detail progress on potential skin cancer vaccine

modern mRNA-Q The stock soared Tuesday after the COVID-19 vaccine maker detailed progress in developing a preventive vaccine against the deadly skin cancer.

The company said it was working with pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co on a possible melanoma vaccine that performed well in a small study of patients whose cancer had been surgically removed.

Combining the vaccine with Merck & Co’s immunotherapy Keytruda led to a statistically significant improvement in survival for patients with advanced melanoma before their cancer returned, the drugmaker said.

“We are very excited that we are moving rapidly into Phase 3 of this study with Merck,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told CNBC on Tuesday morning.

Phase 3 is typically the largest and most expensive stage of clinical research before regulators review potential drugs for approval.

Moderna, which developed one of the most popular vaccines used to protect patients from COVID-19, raked in more than $3 billion in revenue from its Spikevax in the third quarter of this year.

But access to the vaccine has slowed, and Moderna relies on Spikevax for nearly all of its revenue.

Like Spikevax, the potential skin cancer vaccine uses mRNA technology. It trains the patient’s immune system to recognize mutations in the DNA of the patient’s tumor and to respond specifically.

In a mid-stage clinical trial involving 157 patients, researchers compared the vaccine-Keytruda combination to Keytruda alone.

Merck’s top-selling drug Keytruda triggers the body’s immune system to detect and fight tumor cells. Regulatory agencies have approved it for the treatment of many types of cancer.

The group of patients who took the potential vaccine along with Keytruda had a 44 percent lower risk of death or cancer recurrence, the companies said.

Treatment in both groups continued for about a year unless the disease recurred or side effects became too severe.

Merck and Moderna expect to start a phase 3 study next year, and the companies have said they intend to expand their approach to other tumor types.

Merck and Moderna reached a cooperation agreement in 2016, and the two companies plan to share costs and profits in the cooperation. Merck also paid Moderna $250 million.

Shares of Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna Inc. surged 23% to $200 in midday trading, while the broader index climbed. Shares of Kenilworth, New Jersey-based Merck & Co rose less than 1%.

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