An international three year research project to develop a network of facilities and expertise to counter future pandemics has received 60 million dollar funding. With a more efficient use of mRNA technology, vaccines and monoclonal antibodies could help fight new viral or bacterial infections and cancer. UniTrento, with Cibio, and Cosbi have been selected to participate in the international effort for the mathematical modeling of new mRNA products
Imagine a technology that can produce 20 billion vaccine doses in just one month. Imagine that using the same technology you can produce monoclonal antibodies for all, reducing the costs from several hundred dollars to less than ten per dose. With this technology, things would have been different during the pandemic.
But this future could be like this, in three years, thank to mRNA research. And there is more: the technology could be effectively accessible to all. That is the goal of the R3 program (RNA Readiness and Response) which has been funded with 60 million dollars by Wellcome Leap, an international non-profit organization that serves as an accelerator for discoveries in the health sector, in collaboration with CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), a public-private international alliance to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics.
Research groups and companies from all over the world participated in the selection procedure but only 18 were selected. They include scientists from prestigious universities and research institutes (Cambridge, Stanford, Pennsylvania, Auckland, Emory, Sheffield, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Genome Institute of Singapore, University of Massachusetts Amherst, King’s College London and Fondazione Toscana Life Sciences) and cutting-edge biotechnology companies.
The University of Trento, with the research team led by Luca Marchetti of the Computational Biology Laboratory of the Cibio department and Cosbi in Rovereto, is part of this program in collaboration with Guido Grandi, head of the Laboratory of Synthetic and Structural Vaccinology at Cibio. With two more research teams, one based in the United States and a British one, Cibio and Cosbi are developing predictive mathematical models to support the development of new mRNA based products. Using computational technology, the researchers will simulate the events following the administration of a new vaccine or monoclonal antibody. Their objective is to define proper administration protocols to maximize the efficacy of the treatment and reduce side effects.
The potential impact of the project attracted the attention of the international journal Nature that, in a recent article, investigated the multiple implications of vaccine production. The article, which explains how to determine vaccine doses using mathematical models, contains an interview with Luca Marchetti and mentions the research developed by Cosbi and UniTrento that inspired the projects, to further underline the importance of concentrating the efforts of the scientific community to win this challenge.
It all revolves around the revolutionary mRNA technology: one of the greatest scientific achievements of our times, which has made it possible to develop a new vaccine in months and not years. And Covid-19 demonstrated it: it took only 63 days from the sequencing of the virus to the production of the first dose of mRNA vaccine.
Unlike traditional vaccines, with mRNA technology the task of identifying and producing the key protein (antigen) that triggers the production of antibodies is given to our immune system, our natural defense system. mRNA vaccines therefore do not provide the antigen itself but the instructions to make it, thereby training the immune system to produce the antibodies.
The applications of this approach, which has been studied and tested during the pandemic, go beyond viral infections and include the treatment of bacterial infections and conditions such as cancer. It can also be used in veterinary medicine, with better cost efficiency in farming and positive benefits for food safety.
“The project gives Cosbi and Cibio the opportunity to strengthen their position in the field of biologic systems modeling and to demonstrate their practical application in the development of innovative treatments”, added Enrico Domenici, president of Cosbi and co-head of the program.
The key to speed up research: manufacturing the components
A breakthrough like this is expected to stimulate public and private research teams and business, worldwide, to study, develop and manufacture mRNA based biologics, using significant funds and resources. And yet that is not happening, or at least not at the scale it could. Why? Research in biotechnology requires huge investments, estimated in 300-500 million dollars for 4 to 8 years, and access to skills and resources for clinical trials and small scale manufacturing processes.
A situation that reminds of the semiconductor crisis, when a crucial discovery was under exploited for decades because of the manufacturing costs and of the shortage of equipment. The problem came close to a solution at the end of the ‘70, when companies were created focusing exclusively on third party manufacturing which, with better competition, made available in greater quantity and lower prices the necessary production materials and equipment.
The R3 program will try to achieve the same goals: increase the number of biologic products that can be designed, developed and produced every year, at a lower cost and giving access to all the research teams that want to participate. Another goal is to create a network of manufacturing facilities providing the global capacity to tackle future pandemics.