The protracted Covid-19 pandemic needed a rapid response. The worldwide deployment of the mRNA vaccine was therefore nothing short of miraculous, requiring a skillful and coordinated effort. This novel technology literally determined life or death for many people. While the mRNA tech had been decades in development, its emergency use opened up the field of vaccinology to endless innovation and potential. Indeed, not only in defeating infectious diseases but as a possibility in other therapeutic contexts.
Two companies, Moderna and BioNTech, were the first companies granted emergency use of the mRNA technology for a Covid vaccine. Both companies were relatively unknown before 2020. The question is…
How can life science startups learn from these mRNA pioneers?
Early Research and Development
Moderna and BioNTech had invested in mRNA technology for several years prior to the pandemic. Their foundational research and development efforts laid the ground for the fast-tracked development of a vaccine.
Before focusing on specific disease targets, extensive preclinical studies to understand the mechanisms behind mRNA and its safety and efficacy were undertaken. Once it showed promise, scientists began targeting antigens for infectious diseases like flu and Zika.
Behind this research and development were passionate scientists and entrepreneurs who painstakingly tested the mRNA technology in generating a potent immune response.
The delivery system presented a few challenges which scientists needed to grapple with and overcome
One of the major challenges in mRNA vaccine development was finding a safe and effective way to deliver the mRNA into cells. Enter lipid nanoparticles. These protected, and thus enabled the mRNA to enter human cells and facilitate the important work of protein synthesis.
Collaborations and Partnerships
Moderna and BioNTech collaborated with various organizations, including government agencies, academic institutions and other biotech companies. These partnerships were critical to share knowledge, resources and expertise in a time of major upheaval and acute disease.
It is important to note that governments around the world showed immense leadership in expediting vaccine development and production. As such, Moderna and BioNTech could scale up vaccine manufacturing to mass produce their vaccines.
A focus on adaptability
The beauty of mRNA tech is that it is flexible, enabling researchers to swiftly modify the vaccine design to target new viral variants. Moreover, the technology could be useful in many other therapeutic areas.
Efficient clinical trials
Both companies conducted large-scale clinical trials to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of their vaccines. Their speed and rigor were the defining factors and were essential in gaining regulatory approval and public trust.
Biotech startups are poised to make it big
The life sciences sector in the US generates over $112-billion in revenue. It’s therefore no surprise that tech hubs are seeing an uptick in biotechnology research and development. Scientists are racing to formulate new cancer treatments, or tap into the exciting world of genetics.
Spotting opportunities is key
Despite the groundbreaking work of companies like Moderna and BioNTech, there’s still more to be discovered. Researchers and entrepreneurs are on the lookout to improve or build on existing technology. Adjuvants, for example, improve the potency of vaccines by boosting immune responses.
Beyond vaccinology, opportunities abound in specialized fields such as gene editing technologies, CAR-T Cell Therapy, and personalized medicine.
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