How HMH was part of highly promising potential breakthrough in melanoma research

John Theurer Cancer Center, which participated in both phase 1 and phase 2 of trial, also will conduct one phase 3 trial

Leaders at the John Theurer Cancer Center in Hackensack were thrilled this week when results of a new clinical study presented at the American Association of Cancer Research meeting showed promise in the fight against melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.

The AACR researched showed that an investigational messenger RNA vaccine, used in combination with an FDA-approved immunotherapy for certain cancers, dramatically reduced the possibility of melanoma from recurring or causing death by 44%, compared with use of the immunotherapy alone.

Melanoma is by far the most serious type of skin cancer. Such a breakthrough would have a huge impact on society.

Dr. Andrew Pecora, a skin cancer specialist at the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center who served as a co-investigator of phase 2 of the study, said the breakthrough is validation of immunotherapy treatments.

“The science employed in this study and its results are particularly exciting because they demonstrate how immunotherapy is being taken to the next level by educating the patient’s immune system with their own cancer cells to recognize and attack their specific cancer through the mRNA technology,” he said. “Using mRNA technology allows isolation of the RNA that results in the production of proteins that are specific to antigens to be recognized by the immune system.”

Hackensack University Medical Center is part of Hackensack Meridian Health.

The study, “mRNA-4157 (V940), a Personalized Cancer Vaccine, in Combination with Pembrolizumab, Demonstrates Trend for Improved Recurrence-Free Survival Compared to Pembrolizumab Alone in Adjuvant Melanoma Patients Across Tumor Mutational Burden Subgroups,” enrolled men and women who had surgery to remove melanoma from lymph nodes or other organs. The patients studied were at high risk of the cancer returning in areas of their body distant from the original cancer.

About JTCC

Hackensack Meridian John Theurer Cancer Center is New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive center dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment, management, research, screenings and preventive care, as well as survivorship of patients with all types of cancers. The 14 specialized divisions covering the complete spectrum of cancer care have developed a close-knit team of medical, research, nursing and support staff with specialized expertise that translates into more advanced, focused care for all patients.

The John Theurer Cancer Center is a part of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Among 107 study participants who received both the investigational vaccine and the immunotherapy drug, the cancer recurred in 24 patients (22.4%) within two years of follow-up, compared with 20 patients out of 50 (40%) who received only the immunotherapy, pembrolizumab.

The vaccine, similar to many of the vaccines for COVID-19, is based on messenger RNA, which provides instructions for cells to make proteins. Messenger RNA cancer vaccines are designed to teach the body’s immune system to recognize cancer cells as different from normal cells. In this case, the vaccine strives to trigger an immune response to specific abnormal proteins called “neoantigens” that are made by cancer cells.

Because the study participants all had their tumors removed, researchers were able to analyze their cells for neoantigens that were specific to each melanoma and create a personalized vaccine for each patient. As a result, T-cells were produced specific to the neoantigen proteins encoded by the mRNA. Those T-cells could then attack any melanoma cells attempting to grow.

Dr. Andre Goy, chairman and director of John Theurer Cancer Center, said the importance of the breakthroughs cannot be overstated.

“This is the future of cancer care, that cancer vaccines would be specific enough to target an individual’s specific cancer as a part of individualized care,” he said. “We are honored to be a part of this work and look forward to discovering more approaches that offer clinical benefits to patients.”