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mRNA magic will drive medical advances for everyone

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mRNA is a of the first molecules of life. Although identified six decades ago as the bearer of the blueprint for proteins in living cells, its pharmaceutical potential was long underestimated. The mRNA looked unpromising – too unstable, too weak in potency and too inflammatory.

The successful development of the first mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 in 2020 was an unprecedented achievement in the history of medicine. This success has been built on iterative progress over decades, driven by the independent contributions of scientists around the world.

We fell in love with mRNA in the 1990s because of its versatility, its ability to stimulate the immune system and its safety profile – after fulfilling its biological task, the molecule completely degrades, leaving no trace in the body. We’ve discovered ways to exponentially improve the properties of mRNA, increasing its stability and effectiveness, as well as the ability to deliver it to the right immune cells in the body. This progress has allowed us to create effective mRNA vaccines that, when administered in small amounts to humans, elicit powerful immune responses. In addition, we have established rapid, scalable processes to manufacture new candidate vaccines for clinical application within weeks. The result was the breakthrough of mRNA in the fight against Covid-19.

The potential of mRNA vaccines goes beyond the coronavirus. Now we want to use this technology to fight two of the oldest and deadliest pathogens in the world: malaria and tuberculosis. Worldwide, there are about 10 million new cases of tuberculosis each year. For malaria, the medical need is even greater: around 230 million cases of malaria were reported in the WHO African region in 2020, with the majority of deaths occurring among children under 5 years of age.

The convergence of medical advances – from next-generation sequencing to technologies for characterizing immune responses in large data sets – increases our ability to discover optimal targets for vaccines. Science has also made progress in understanding how malaria and tuberculosis pathogens hide and evade the immune system, providing information on how to combat them.

The ongoing revolution in computational prediction of protein structure allows the modeling of three-dimensional protein structures. This is helping us to decipher regions in these proteins that are ideal targets for vaccine development.

One of the beauties of mRNA technology is that it allows us to rapidly test hundreds of vaccine targets. Furthermore, we can combine multiple mRNAs – each encoding a different pathogenic antigen – into a single vaccine. For the first time, it has become feasible for an mRNA-based vaccine to teach the human immune system to fight multiple vulnerable targets of a pathogen. In 2023, we plan to begin clinical trials for the first malaria and tuberculosis mRNA vaccine candidates that combine known and novel targets. If successful, this endeavor could change the way we prevent these diseases and contribute to their eradication.

Medical innovations can only make a difference to people around the world when they are available on a global scale. The production of mRNA is complex and involves tens of thousands of steps, making technology transfer time-consuming and error-prone. To overcome this bottleneck, we developed a high-tech solution called the BioNTainer — a modular, transportable mRNA manufacturing facility. This innovation could support decentralized and scalable vaccine production worldwide, moving towards automated, digitized and scalable mRNA manufacturing capability. We expect the first installation to be up and running in Rwanda in 2023.

We anticipate that 2023 will bring us these and other important milestones that can contribute to shaping a healthier future, a future that can harness the potential of mRNA and its promise to democratize access to innovative medicines. Now is the time to drive that change.