Moderna lab, the small biotechnology that can save the world from COVID-19.
Moderna is using a new technology: instead of using viruses or proteins, platforms work only with genetic material. Biotechnology focuses on messenger RNA (mRNA), the genetic material in DNA that makes proteins.
Due to the speed of its platform, Moderna has had the potential to fight infectious disease outbreaks since the company’s inception in 2011.
That preclinical process of finding and selecting a target can take years for traditional vaccines, says Bancel, instead of the three days it took for Moderna.
“We are not playing the same game,” says Bancel. “We never saw the virus. We don’t need to see the virus. What we need is the genetic instruction of the virus.”
Norwood’s Moderna team moved quickly: One group of engineers designed the candidate vaccine with mRNA, while another group converted an area used for custom cancer vaccines into a space to pump out the first few doses of a coronavirus vaccine.
“There were some changes to the process that the team had to test on the fly,” says Bancel, noting that it was the first time that cancer space had been used in this way.
By February 7, the company had completed a first batch of the vaccine. After a couple of weeks of quality testing, Moderna sent the first doses to the NIH on February 24, 42 days after the virus was sequenced.
Now, NIH will conduct clinical trials of the vaccine. The first study has just begun recruiting patients, seeking to test 3 dose levels in 45 healthy adults in the United States, to see if the vaccine is safe.
Future tests will focus on whether the vaccine works, and will involve hundreds or thousands of people.
Looking beyond the coronavirus, Moderna aims to apply mRNA to many diseases without approved vaccines, in addition to possible future outbreaks. The company has 7 vaccines in clinical trials for viruses without an approved vaccine, including Zika and the virus that causes mononucleosis.
“We are taking biology into a digital world, where we can work from a sequence, and we don’t invent a molecule,” says Bancel. Instead, Moderna is taking advantage of nature’s genetic instructions to get the job done.