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.
These are big steps for a company that has secured roughly $370 million (€318 million) in equity investments since its founding in 2000 but has yet to bring a vaccine to market. It certainly has big plans. In 2015, Curevac and the Gates Foundation set the goal of delivering a vaccine against rotavirus, a frequent cause of diarrhea in developing countries, by 2020. There is no update as to where they are in that development pipeline (the company’s last announcements were released in 2015), but Ingmar Hoerr, Curevac’s founder and CFO, anticipated production of the rotavirus vaccine by 2019.
“RNA-vaccines still have enormous hurdles to overcome,” said Manon Cox, CEO of the US vaccine firm Protein Science, which is known for having developed an influenza vaccine from genetically-modified proteins. Ms. Cox, an industry expert, said even their own product struggles to compete with traditional vaccines.
In an interview with Labiotech, Mr. Hoerr said he was not worried: “The field is still investigating: everyone has to validate a concept before we talk about product design.” Curevac’s rivals include Munich-based Biontech and US startup Moderna Therapeutics, whose focus is also mRNA. Moderna, based stateside in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a unicorn, scene-lingo for a start-up with a valuation of more than $1 billion.
According to Mr. Hoerr, Curevac’s CEO, the clinical program for the “enhanced rabies vaccine” will continue into early 2018. He did not disclose when the vaccine could be available for use. “Although there is a need for further research, these results are an important first step towards realizing the potential of Curevac’s mRNA vaccine technology,” said Andrew Farnum, investment officer at the Gates Foundation. Don’t get bitten by stray dogs just yet.
Siegfried Hofmann writes about companies and markets for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com