As one of the very few biotech unicorns in Europe, CureVac is investigating the relatively new area of mRNA in therapeutics. At Labiotech Refresh, we chatted to Ingmar Hoerr on the rise of mRNA, how investors approached it, and what the Gates Foundation want to see.
Joachim also had a fireside chat with Ingmar Hoerr , the CEO of CureVac, at Labiotech Refresh. It is one of the key biotechs developing immunotherapy using mRNA to target immune cells.
Starting around 16 years ago as a spin-out from the University of Tübingen (Germany), its chief concern with this field in biotechnology is that there isn’t yet an mRNA product on the market. Despite this, CureVac has still done extremely well for itself (even outperforming the US A-lister Moderna). How?
For many years they were just talking to many investors and approaching them from an academic point of view. The miRNA and mRNA tech was a very new concept at the time, so it was difficult to convince them how it could be a success.
Around 2001, investors were pushing the platform (RNActive) as the key selling point, but the company kept switching business plans. There was clearly more potential there, even if the technology was still a long way off at that time. As Ingmar said:
You need to stick to your data, and not be influenced too much by investors.”
So that was the real task – to switch from a tech company to a products based biotech. There is already a lot of data from competitors showing this system is working. And one huge benefit with mRNA is that “you are talking to the body in its own language“.
However, there is still the issue of toxicity with this kind of therapy, so you have to be careful with doses. On the other hand, Ingmar explained than just 10µg of mRNA can already raise the response of the T-cells and B-cells, so not much is needed – and therefore it’s not as risky as you might think.
This is also improved with use of liposomes. And by design, mRNA based products are naturally transient materials, which are only around for a couple of days, yet have a lasting effect. There is still much to work out, “but then again that is what Biotech is all about.“
It’s all about disruptive technology, and CureVac is wanting to see how far it can go and achieve the benchmarks for the field.”
For example, now CureVac is in trials with a therapy for prostate cancer, which is their most advanced candidate so far. The company has also attracted some serious investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is unusual given it is typically a non-biotech sponsor.
So what did they want with CureVac?
Well, given the foundation’s focus on health development for resource limited settings, it wants to replace traditional HIV and AIDS models for vaccines. With RNA-based technology, vaccines can be produced faster and more cheaply.
Ingmar also explained that by actively investing into CureVac, the foundation is demonstrating their new direction of focusing on entrepreneurship within companies. As Bill Gates himself said:
Technologies like mRNA give us confidence to place big bets for the future. We are pleased to partner with CureVac who has been pioneering this technology.”
The foundation pledged $52M (€41M) to CureVac, and in exchange the biotech just has to share how the company is progressing in its vaccine development with the foundation. Indeed, the EU prize for Vaccines even went to CureVac in 2014.
Here Ingmar explains a bit more about how CureVac’s technology works on the Labiotech Tour of South Germany
Feature Image Credit: Joachim Eeckhout interviewing Ingmar Hoerr (CEO of CureVac) at Labiotech Refresh in Berlin, May 24th, 2016.
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