Pfizer and partner BioNTech on Friday started the first human trial of a messenger RNA-based vaccine for shingles, believing their shot can be easier to take, and more efficiently produced, than the one available for use.
The trial is a two-part study that will enroll 900 healthy U.S. adults between the ages of 50 and 69. The first part of the study will help identify a regimen that the companies will then test in the second part of the trial. The companies will then track participants to see how long protection might last.
The effort is the latest step by drug developers to prove that mRNA technology can produce safe and effective shots for more than just COVID-19. Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna, have each brought flu shots into late-stage testing. Moderna also has an experimental vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus that recently succeeded in a Phase 3 trial. mRNA shots are also being developed for HIV infections and certain cancers.
Shingles is next in line. Pfizer and BioNTech first agreed to work on a project in January 2022, with BioNTech contributing its mRNA expertise and Pfizer offering up antigen technology. Pfizer invested $150 million in BioNTech as part of the arrangement, their third focused on infectious diseases. The two are splitting development costs, and would share profits if the shot is successful in clinical testing.
Shingles affects about one in three Americans over their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease is caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus that typically causes chickenpox in childhood. It usually affects older adults and can cause painful rashes as well as, in rare cases, hearing loss or blindness.
An effective vaccine, GSK’s Shingrix, is already available for shingles. The shot has been on the market since 2017 and generated sales of about 3 billion pounds, or $3.6 billion, in 2022. Its success even led Merck & Co. to stop selling its own shingles vaccine, Zostavax.
Pfizer and BioNTech believes there is room for improvement, however. Shingrix carries side effects like chills, pain and fever. The partners think they can match Shingrix’s efficacy with a more tolerable shot. They also noted, in a statement, that their vaccine might be more efficiently produced and distributed globally.