How mRNA technology could change the world

In the US, the paper caught the attention of a brazen group of postdocs, professors, and venture capitalists. They started a company whose name modified the words and destroyed RNA: Moderna. Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, a married couple with a background in immunotherapy research, also saw great potential in Germany. They founded several companies including one researching mRNA-based cancer treatments: BioNTech.

“When we started there was a lot of skepticism in the industry as this was a new technology with no approved products,” said Türeci. “Drug development is tightly regulated, so people don’t like to stray from the ways they are experienced.” Thanks to the support of philanthropists, investors and other companies, BioNTech and Moderna have continued to operate for years without approved products. Moderna partnered with the NIH and received tens of millions of dollars from DARPA, the agency for advanced defense research projects, to develop vaccines against viruses, including Zika. In 2018, Pfizer signed an agreement with BioNTech to develop mRNA vaccines against the flu.

“The technology initially appealed to us because of its high speed flexibility because of the flu,” said Philip Dormitzer, director of research and development programs for Pfizer’s viral vaccines. “You can process mRNA very quickly. That’s very useful for a virus like the flu, which requires two updated vaccines each year for the northern and southern hemispheres. “

By the time the coronavirus broke out in the city of Wuhan, China, Moderna and BioNTech had spent years tweaking their technology. As the outbreak spread around the world, Pfizer and BioNTech were ready to switch their flu research to SARS-CoV-2 immediately. “It really was a case where our researchers swapped the flu protein for the coronavirus spike protein,” Dormitzer said. “It turned out it wasn’t that big of a jump.”

With years of clinical mRNA work based on decades of basic research, the scientists solved the mystery of SARS-CoV-2 with astonishing speed. On January 11, 2020, Chinese researchers released the genetic sequence of the virus. The recipe for Moderna’s mRNA vaccine was completed in about 48 hours. By the end of February, batches of the vaccine had been shipped to Bethesda, Maryland for clinical trials. Its development was accelerated by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, which invested billions of dollars in several vaccine candidates, including Modernas. With the perfect timing of a Hollywood epic, mRNA entered the promised land after about 40 years of research. Scientific progress had advanced at its typical two-speed pace – slowly, slowly, then all at once.

2. Faster, faster!

Speed ​​and maneuverability were the characteristics that made DARPA and Pfizer first interested in mRNA. And if technology makes further breakthroughs after this pandemic, speed and agility will play a major role.

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