Moderna announces 3 new mRNA vaccine targets including herpes and cancer
Building on the momentum of its extraordinarily successful mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, biotechnology company Moderna has announced three new mRNA development targets. The company is now setting its vaccine sights on the herpes simplex virus, the varicella-zoster virus, and a novel cancer vaccine.
In early 2020, as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 swiftly spread across the world triggering a global pandemic, mRNA vaccine researchers kicked into gear. Decades of work had luckily positioned this new technology as ready for a move into the big time and by the end of the year mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were demonstrating extraordinary safety and efficacy.
The acceleration of mRNA vaccines from experimental technology to the arms of billions of people paved the way for new research avenues. So while it is clear the technology can make for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, what else can it do?
Moderna, one of the biotech companies leading the mRNA pack, has just announced a trio of new developmental targets. These three new mRNA vaccine targets sit alongside the company’s previously announced focuses on HIV, influenza, cytomegalovirus (CMV), and the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
The biggest newly announced target is a mRNA vaccine against the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes virus – HSV-1, the virus known to affect the mouth and cause cold sores, and HSV-2, more commonly the source of genital herpes.
Moderna’s mRNA vaccine candidate will target HSV-2, with the company indicating it expects immunity against that type of herpes should be somewhat cross-protective against HSV-1. Both herpes viruses are known as latent viruses, meaning infection is often chronic, with the virus remaining dormant in people for the entirety of their lives.
HSV-1 is thought to have infected over half the world’s population, while HSV-2 is the world’s most common sexually transmitted disease, with around 10 percent of people thought to be infected. Some researchers have also hypothesized the herpes virus may play a role in the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The second mRNA target announced by Moderna is aimed at the varicella-zoster virus (VSV). This is the virus that causes chicken pox and it is also a latent virus that can remain dormant for years after an initial infection. When VSV reactivates it causes a disease known as shingles.
Moderna’s targeting of shingles follows an announcement last month from Pfizer indicating it too will be looking at developing an mRNA vaccine for this common disease.
The final newly announced mRNA target is for a vaccine aimed at two antigens expressed by some cancer cells. The vaccine focuses on two antigens: Indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase (IDO) and programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1).
Both molecules are known to play a role in the growth of tumor cells. The goal of an mRNA vaccine for cancer would be to train the body’s immune cells to detect tumor cells expressing these specific antigens. The mRNA vaccine will initially be tested on advanced or metastatic skin cancer and a type of lung cancer called non-small cell lung carcinoma.
"We are committed to addressing latent viruses with the goal of preventing the lifelong medical conditions that they cause with our mRNA vaccine programs,” said Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna. “With our HSV and VZV vaccine candidates, we also hope to improve the quality of life for those with symptomatic disease. With our new checkpoint cancer vaccine, we look forward to exploring if we can induce T cells specific to PD-L1 and IDO1 through vaccination. Our research teams are working on additional mRNA candidates, which we look forward to sharing in the future."