The first vaccines against Covid-19 aren’t just a landmark in the fight against the pandemic. They’re also the stepping stone for an unconventional technology that could one day defeat other ailments that have eluded doctors, from cancer to heart disease.
The shots from Moderna Inc. and a partnership of Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE use genetic material called messenger RNA to effectively transform the body’s own cells into vaccine factories. The approach had never been used outside of clinical experiments, and just how well it worked against the coronavirus stunned even some of its most enthusiastic backers.
Now, with one vaccine vaccine having gained U.S. clearance and the other close behind, the pandemic validation could wrench open a whole new field of medicine.
“We are now entering the age of mRNA therapeutics,” said Derrick Rossi, a former Harvard University stem-cell biologist who helped found Moderna in 2010. “The whole world has seen this. There is going to be increased investment and increased resources.”
In some ways, the global pandemic was the perfect proving ground for the new technology as deep-pocketed backers — including Pfizer — became more willing to take a risk. But the effort was only possible because BioNTech and Moderna Inc. had worked on messenger RNA for years.
The technology instructs cells to make any type of protein, transforming them into tiny production lines for drugs or vaccines. One major drawback is that messenger RNA is fragile, and must reach cells before the body breaks it down. In the coronavirus vaccine, that’s done by using a modified form of mRNA and coating it with fatty nanoparticles.
BioNTech’s chief executive officer, Ugur Sahin, began studying the technology in cancer some two decades ago with his wife, Ozlem Tureci, an immunologist who co-founded the company. Sahin says what his teams were able to move quickly on the Covid project by harnessing what they had learned from cancer-vaccine development.
The resulting ability to assess multiple candidates in parallel was “really beautiful,” Sahin said in an interview.
The cancer field might see its first messenger RNA drug approvals in two or three years, according to Sahin. Rossi meanwhile predicts that virtually all infectious-disease vaccines will use the technology in a decade or two, in part because it’s much faster and cheaper. The scientist still owns Moderna shares, but he is no longer affiliated with the company.