Moderna, $40M in Tow, Hopes to Reinvent Biotech with “Make Your Own Drug”
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their first patent shortly thereafter. And so Moderna was born, with Rossi, Afeyan, Chien, and Langer as its co-founders. (Springer is on the board of directors.)
Afeyan is cautiously optimistic about the startup’s chances. “It definitely could enable a resurgence of a new type of biotech industry and company,” he told me earlier this year. “It certainly has a disruptive potential. And it builds on lots of things that have been tried before.”
Rewrite the Book of Biotech
Since the Genentech days, the biotech industry has made protein drugs by taking cells that grow well in culture—typically bacteria, yeast, or mammalian cell lines—and inserting a human gene that codes for a particular therapeutic protein. Grown in big vats, the cells produce the desired protein (insulin, say), and a company can purify it into a form that can be put in a syringe and injected into patients. That’s the idea behind protein drugs from Amgen, Baxter, Genzyme (now part of Sanofi), and all the other big-name biotechs.
Yet, after all this time, the entire biotech industry has yielded only about 100 approved drugs on the market. Everyone in the industry knows the immense amount of time and resources it takes to formulate and fine-tune the production of a new protein drug. By contrast, Moderna has already looked at dozens of proteins—some secreted in the blood and some intracellular (expressed inside cells). As Bancel puts it, “We can make any therapeutic protein in a matter of weeks.”
That’s because, if it really works, Moderna’s technology will let the body’s cells produce the proteins themselves—in response to the right messenger RNA. The company’s process for making mRNA is fast and compact, Bancel says. It buys nucleotides altered by a special chemical process—that’s the trick—and uses a catalytic process to create many copies of the messenger RNA, so that a tank of material will fit in a coffee cup, he says.
At a high level, this sounds a bit like what researchers were trying to do in the early ‘90s, in experiments that eventually led to the discovery of RNA interference. They were trying to make flowers more purple (and other colors) by adding an mRNA for a “purple” gene, but they wound up making them whiter instead—meaning the gene expression was inhibited instead of boosted. Bancel emphasizes that his company’s technology, if it’s related at all, does the opposite of RNAi. But exactly what makes Moderna’s mRNA work so differently is under wraps.
Bancel (left) joined the company as employee number two last year, after stepping down as CEO of bioMérieux, the French diagnostics company. He says it took a lot to get him to leave his previous job. “I wanted to start a company from scratch,” he says. “I turned down many, many projects because the potential was not big enough.”
But Bancel’s background was a good fit for Moderna because he was a biochemical engineer by training, had experience manufacturing drugs at Eli Lilly, and had run a large, publicly traded company in bioMérieux. And he was still hungry to … Next Page »