This $5 Billion Startup Made Its First Cancer Vaccine—For Just One Person


Six weeks ago, a 1-millimeter cube of cancer tissue collected by doctors from the right lung of 67-year-old retiree Glenda Cleaver was packed in a box at the Sarah Cannon Research Institute in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the beginning of a journey Moderna hopes will lead to a long-sought goal: a vaccine that trains the body to attack tumors.

Novel cancer drugs often come with six-figure price tags, so success could be lucrative. Numerous companies are chasing a cancer vaccine. Others have been ruined by the pursuit.

“It’d be a tremendous technological achievement to open up the cancer vaccine space, given the history of nothing but failures,” says Wedbush biotech analyst David Nierengarten.

Swathed in cooling gel packs to keep it at 5 degrees Celsius, Cleaver’s tissue was sent with a second box containing a four-inch vial of Cleaver’s frozen blood to Kentucky, where it was entered into a tracking system. From there, the samples were shipped to a facility on the West Coast where machines scanned the tumor’s genetic code and compared it to the blood, hunting for the malevolent changes that spawned Cleaver’s cancer.

On Monday, Cleaver, the first person to be enrolled in Moderna’s study of its personalized cancer vaccine, returned to Sarah Cannon, where another FedEx box waited. It contained a vial no larger than Cleaver’s palm. It took about 100 people to make and will work for only one person—her.