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05 May 2021

mRNA: The Future of Pharma?

The Coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the world like nothing we’ve ever seen in our lifetime. The ways in which we live, work, socialise and communicate have all changed, perhaps for good, and the true adaptability of the human nature has been tested.
 
From working remotely to social distancing, entire industries have changed the way they operate due to the effects of the virus. There are many lessons to be learnt from the response to the pandemic, but one industry that has arguably advanced its way of working is the vaccine industry.
 
In normal circumstances, it would take 10-15 years of research before a vaccine is made available to the public. However, it took less than 11 months for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be developed and be given emergency use authorisation (EUA) in the United Kingdom.

This particular vaccine, unlike the Oxford AstraZeneca effort, is a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. mRNA serves as a code that tells the body how to generate the necessary antigens. These antigens are then recognised by the immune system, meaning it is prepared to fight the Coronavirus if the patient contracts it in actuality. Unlike viral vector vaccines like the Oxford AstraZeneca jab, no actual virus is needed to create an mRNA vaccine, meaning that it can be produced at a much faster rate.

Previously, mRNA vaccines were far from the success story they are today. It was first suggested in studies as recently as 1989 and 1990 that mRNA could prompt human cells to produce virus-fighting proteins. In 1994 it was shown that RNA could be used as a vaccine to combat pathogens in mice. Almost written off as a pipedream, it wasn’t until 2005 that mRNA vaccines were developed to work in humans. However, no mRNA vaccine was licensed for use in humans until 2020 in the fight against Coronavirus.
 
mRNA’s use in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, two of the world’s front runners, has boosted the profile of mRNA vaccines in what has been heralded as a revolution in molecular biology.
 
By tweaking the genetic code of the mRNA, ultimately instructing the body to produce different antigens, scientists may be able to use the technology to combat any number of diseases in the future, including ones that, thus far, we have been unable to defeat.
 
The journal Nature reported in October 2019, before the first official COVID-19 case was discovered, that BioNTech had utilised mRNA technology to develop a vaccine for 13 patients with advanced-stage melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Each patient was given a personalised vaccine to match the genetic profile of their unique cancer. All 13 patients “showed elevated immunity against the mutated bits of their tumours,” according to Nature. As a result, each patients’ risk of developing new metastatic lesions was reduced significantly.
 
As well as Coronavirus, mRNA vaccines are being researched to combat a range of viral diseases. Nature reports that prophylactic, or disease preventing, vaccines have been developed for use against influenza and rabies, each producing the antibodies required to defeat the viruses in healthy volunteer patients. However, it was found that the antiviral effects of each vaccine faded after less than one year, meaning that more work is to be done in order to provide long-term immunity.
 
The appetite to develop mRNA vaccines for additional diseases is clear, and the time and capital invested in the cause shows this. In 2012, Moderna, the US-based developer of the most recent COVID-19 vaccine to be rolled out in the UK, raised US$40m from venture capitalists despite being years away from mRNA tests on humans while, in the same year, AstraZeneca agreed to pay Moderna US$240m for the rights to dozens of mRNA drugs that hadn’t yet been developed.
 
In 2018, Moderna opened a US$110m clinical development manufacturing plant to advance the company’s pipeline of mRNA-based medicines. At the time of the plant opening, the firm had 21 programmes in its mRNA pipeline, including potential treatments for different forms of cancer, rare diseases, infectious diseases and even heart failure.
 
Now that the world’s first mRNA vaccines have been officially licensed for use in humans, the future of this ground-breaking scientific discovery looks promising, and with countless diseases still without cures, could we be on the brink of a new age of medicine?

Please note that investments and income arising from them can fall as well as rise in value. This communication is for information only and does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell the shares of the investments mentioned.
mRNA: The Future of Pharma?
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