A molecule that carries the recipe for making drugs inside body cells is exciting scientists and investors alike, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in a scramble for the next promising area of biotechnology.German and US firms are leading the way in synthetic messenger RNA, or mRNA technology, a new approach to tackling a range of hard-to-treat diseases.In theory, the promise of mRNA is enormous, ranging from cancer to infectious diseases to heart and kidney disorders, since it could be used to tackle the 80 percent of proteins that are difficult to affect with existing medicines.Despite a recent sell-off in biotech stocks, sparked by US Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s threat to crack down on drug pricing, enthusiasm for mRNA, is rising.Four-year-old Moderna Therapeutics, based in Massachusetts, which raised a record-breaking $450 million in a private funding round in January, valuing it at $3 billion, has so far hogged the limelight but German companies are flexing their muscles.Privately-held CureVac in the university town of Tuebingen, which already has backing from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates thanks to its vaccine work, last week raised $110 million from new investors, valuing it at $1.6 billion.And Mainz-based BioNTech clinched a deal possibly worth up to $1.5 billion with Sanofi to use mRNA to fight cancer. BioNTech is owned by the Struengmann family who sold generic drugmaker Hexal to Novartis in 2005.
Driving the point home, the third International mRNA Health Conference is being held in Berlin this week. Moderna, CureVac and BioNTech are all sponsoring the event.Today’s biotech medicines use complex proteins or antibodies to treat disease, while traditional tablets such as aspirin or Viagra are simple chemicals. Harnessing synthetic mRNA is a different model altogether.In effect, mRNA serves as software that can be injected into the body to instruct ribosomes, the “3D-printers” found inside cells, to churn out desired proteins.”This is a radically different approach from conventional approaches, where therapeutic proteins are produced outside the human body and active ingredients need to be isolated, purified and cooled and then be inserted back into the human body at great complexity and cost,” said CureVac co-founder and CEO Ingmar Hoerr.