The firm was awarded the €2m $2.7m) grant this week, with European Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn describing its approach to production as “opening up the possibility of a real European breakthrough in the delivery of vaccines to areas where they are needed most.”
CureVac’s vaccines are made using a platform created by co-founder Ingmar Hoerr who discovered that proteins produced as a result of naked mRNA molecules injected into cells elicited a particularly strong immune response.
He told BioPharma-Reporter.com that: “This was a real WOW result, but was also hardly believed from the scientific community since RNA was regarded as a completely unstable molecule and was nearly forgotten by many scientists.”
But Hoerr and partners Steve Pascolo and Florian von der Mulbe persevered, founding CureVac in 2000. In 2006 they set up a manufacturing facility that has sufficient capacity – around 3.5m doses a year - to support the firm’s clinical development programmes.
RNA manufacturing and stability
CureVac is not the only firm to recognise the medical potential of mRNA. Companies like Isis, Alnylam, Arrowhead, Tekmira and Silence Therapeutics have each tried to use molecules to treat disease in various ways.
How CureVac differs, according to Hoerr, is that its approach to vaccine production has overcome one of the biggest challenges that has previously held back the development of mRNA-based medicines, namely the molecule's perceived lack of stability.
“The “instability” of single-stranded RNA is mainly caused by the presence of RNases In the human body, RNases are found in fluids such as tears, saliva, mucus, and perspiration to defend against invading microorganisms by secreting these enzymes - RNases can be found basically everywhere.
“CureVac’s proprietary method and completely RNase-free production environment ensures stability its RNA vaccines” he said, explaining that the firm’s production tech is based on sequence optimised constructs made only from natural nucleotides.
The stability of the vaccines – in addition to the lack of need for cell cultures and hen’s egg-based production methods - was also the key to CureVac winning the EU award.
In its statement the European Commission said CureVac’s approach allows “the production of vaccines that are protected against both elevated temperature and inadvertent freezing. It would be possible to rapidly produce these vaccines against almost any infectious disease, and deliver these to the most remote areas of the world.”
This was reiterated by Hoerr who said CureVac’s “mRNA-based vaccines can be lyophilized and retain their full biological activity. Therefore they are stable at 40°C for at least six months and don’t demand for cold chain logistics.”
He added that: “CureVac’s production process avoids many costly steps. It is highly flexible and scalable and can be easily changed within a few days to the production of a new vaccine in the same facility.
“Additionally, the production can be scaled up to millions of vaccine doses. In a comprehesive analysis we did we can compete with existing flu vaccines in terms of cost of goods.”
CureVac is trialling vaccines for prostate and lung cancer and is working on prophylactic vaccines with Sanofi Pasteur or Janssen, which the firm expects to be available within 10 years.