The Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccines represent the first two vaccines based on mRNA technology approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Although people may perceive mRNA technology as new, medical researchers have been exploring it as the next step in vaccine and cancer treatment development since the 1990s. In addition to the potential of mRNA to produce vaccines for vexing diseases, like Ebola or HIV, researchers also believe in its potential for cancer treatments. In the same way that mRNA can teach the human body to attack a virus, it could train the immune system to attack cancer tumor cells.

How Does An mRNA Vaccine Work?

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DNA within cells builds messengers, known as mRNA, that trigger the production of proteins necessary for a cell’s function. An mRNA vaccine creates the message that the body should create a protein specific to the targeted pathogen. In the case of coronavirus, an mRNA vaccine informs the immune system about a protein that the virus needs. This enables an immune response that attacks the protein and therefore eliminates the virus’s ability to function within the body.

Potential Cancer Therapies

BioNTech and Moderna have cancer research programs as well. In July 2020, BioNTech entered a collaboration with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals to study a melanoma treatment based on the experimental BNT111 FixVac mRNA vaccine. BNT111 is designed to trigger anti-tumor responses using four antigens.

COVID-19 Vaccine Vial Prop – mRNA. Credit: Spencerbdavis

As for Moderna, researchers at that pharmaceutical company want to create custom cancer vaccines. The research relies on sequencing mutations found in an individual’s cancer cells. A custom mRNA vaccine would then be tailored to those mutations and theoretically result in the patient’s immune system attacking the cancer.

Will the development of revolutionary cancer treatments be the silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic?

ABOUT Moderna

Every cell in the body uses mRNA to provide real-time instructions to make the proteins necessary to drive all aspects of biology, including in human health and disease.

Given its essential role, we believe mRNA could be used to create a new category of medicines with significant potential to improve the lives of patients.

We are pioneering a new class of medicines made of messenger RNA, or mRNA. The potential implications of using mRNA as a drug are significant and far-reaching and could meaningfully improve how medicines are discovered, developed and manufactured.

Since our founding in 2010, we have worked to build the industry’s leading mRNA technology platform, the infrastructure to accelerate drug discovery and early development, a rapidly expanding pipeline, and a world-class team. Our pipeline includes development candidates for mRNA-based vaccines and therapies spanning several therapeutic areas, and we have multiple clinical trials underway with other development candidates progressing toward the clinic. In addition, we have numerous discovery programs advancing toward development.

ABOUT Pfizer

Starting with Charles Pfizer inventing an almond-flavored antiparasite medicine in 1849, our people have always been innovators & trailblazers, committed to finding the next cure.

Pfizer is dedicated to improving your health and wellness by developing medicines and providing health tips and resources to help you manage a healthy lifestyle. Explore our health and wellness resources

At Pfizer our biotechnology is our foundation. With 25,000 clinical researchers testing every day, pharmaceutical development and innovation are our focus.

Our purpose is grounded in our commitment to fund programs that provide public benefit, advance medical care and improve patient outcomes. Our belief is that all people deserve to live healthy lives. This drives our desire to provide access to medicines that are safe, effective, and affordable.


BioNTech was founded in 2008 on the understanding that every cancer patient’s tumor is unique and therefore each patient’s treatment should be individualized. To translate this idea into reality, we have combined ground-breaking research with cutting-edge technologies to develop pioneering therapeutics for cancer and beyond.

As we prove the value of our approach in the clinic, we will continue to build the partnerships, manufacturing and team required to bring individualized treatments to patients worldwide. From our roots in Mainz, Germany, we are driven to become the leading global biotechnology company for individualized cancer medicine.

ABOUT The Food And Drug Administration

The Food and Drug Administration is the oldest comprehensive consumer protection agency in the U. S. federal government. Since 1848 the federal government has used chemical analysis to monitor the safety of agricultural products — a responsibility inherited by the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and later by the FDA.

Although it was not known by its present name until 1930, FDA’s modern regulatory functions began with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, a law a quarter-century in the making, that prohibited interstate commerce in adulterated and misbranded food and drugs.  Harvey Washington Wiley, Chief Chemist of the USDA Bureau of Chemistry, had been the driving force behind this law and headed its enforcement in the early years, providing basic elements of protection that consumers had never known before that time.

Since then, the FDA has changed along with social, economic, political and legal changes in the United States. Examining the history of these changes illuminates the evolving role that FDA has played in promoting public health and offers lessons to consider as we evaluate current regulatory challenges.

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