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AstraZeneca strikes deal with university spinoff to turn RNA into drugs

The success of the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and BioNTech has drawn significant attention, and new funding, to the technology that allows drug developers to shuttle genetic instructions for specific proteins into cells. Large pharmaceutical firms like Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi are now investing heavily in mRNA vaccines, with the latter company announcing last month it will buy Translate Bio in a $3.2 billion deal.

But mRNA’s potential goes beyond vaccines to include therapies for non-infectious diseases, too. Both Moderna and BioNTech were initially focused on mRNA-based drugs before applying their technology to vaccines.

Other companies, meanwhile, are working on different RNA technologies that, while sharing some of the same principles of how mRNA therapies are made and delivered, work a bit differently. Laronde, a well-funded startup launched by Moderna’s founder Flagship Pioneering, is developing a type of circular RNA that it claims can last for longer.

VaxEquity’s technology, by comparison, enables the RNA being delivered into cells to self-amplify once there, multiplying the potential therapeutic effects. The company, which draws on research that its co-founder Robin Shattock did at Imperial College London, claims self-amplifying RNA could be made at doses one-fiftieth the level used by mRNA companies like Moderna and BioNTech.

“We believe self-amplifying RNA, once optimized, will allow us to target novel pathways not amenable to traditional drug discovery across our therapy areas of interest,” said Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s head of biopharmaceuticals R&D, in a Sept. 23 statement.

The companies’ collaboration will focus on therapeutics, although VaxEquity is also working on vaccines.

AstraZeneca is no stranger to RNA research. In fact, the British pharma was the first pharmaceutical company to partner with Moderna, signing a lucrative partnership deal with the Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech in 2013. Their collaboration now covers potential mRNA treatments for coronary artery disease and cancer.

Since then, AstraZeneca has also inked biotech research deals around RNA interference as well as small molecule drugs targeting RNA.

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