Curevac, based in the picturesque south-western German city of Tübingen, is the poster child of the German biotech industry, laboring as it does in the shadow of American giants such as Gilead Sciences. But Curevac is special – or so, at least, think Bill and Melinda Gates, who gave Curevac $52 million for a 4-percent stake in 2015. What makes it different is that it hopes to prevent or cure prostate cancer, rotavirus and other diseases – including rabies – with vaccines made from messenger RNA (mRNA).
Traditional vaccines use weakened or dead viruses to create immunity in the body. But those often have bad side effects, and need to be stored cold, which makes them hard to deploy in poor countries. By contrast, vaccines based on mRNA take a different approach. Normally, RNA molecules bring information within cells from DNA to the little cellular machines called ribosomes, telling them what kinds of proteins to make. Vaccines using mRNA step into the process, instructing the cell to churn out little warriors that attack disease.
But mRNA vaccines are new and, so far, were not proven to be safe for humans. Hence Curevac’s breakthrough: The Lancet, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, has shown Curevac’s rabies vaccine to be safe. This follows another victory in the European Patent Office, which granted Curevac a patent for technology that combines mRNA with a protein that controls immune-cell responses.