Thanks to Covid-19 vaccines, messenger RNA (mRNA) technology has reached the mainstream. With a €23.4M Series B round, the German firm Ethris is riding the mRNA buzz by developing inhalable mRNA therapies for respiratory diseases.
As Covid-19 mRNA vaccines entered the market for the first time in 2020, the wide potential of mRNA technology became clear to many across the biotech industry. The approvals and subsequent commercializations of vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna have paved the way for other mRNA applications, such as disease therapies.
“Researchers that bet on [mRNA] technology decades ago are now seeing those bets paying off,” said Carsten Rudolph, CEO of the German mRNA company Ethris. “The potential of mRNA to prevent and treat a plethora of diseases goes beyond Covid-19 and there is increasing interest from new parties, including governmental institutions and strategic investors in mRNA-based transformative medicines.”
This week, Ethris banked €23.4M in a Series B round to fund the development of its lead candidate mRNA therapies — one for respiratory viral infections and the other for the genetic lung condition primary ciliary dyskinesia. The company expects to apply for a phase I trial of its viral infection treatment this year.
Unlike marketed mRNA vaccines, which are delivered via an injection, Ethris’ therapies are designed to be inhalable. The company uses lipid nanoparticles to allow the mRNA to be inhaled stably, and the drug can be stored at room temperature for several days. According to Rudolph, Ethris’ technology is four times faster at nebulizing mRNA than rival technologies.
Many firms across Europe are pursuing mRNA therapies for a range of conditions including cancer and respiratory diseases. German companies are particularly well represented in this category, including BioNTech, CureVac, Ethris, and Pantherna Therapeutics.
“There are only a few countries that have a research landscape as broad as Germany’s,” said Rudolph. “This has been the result of state funding for basic science research and visionary German investors from outside the traditional VC community who have been innovators themselves.”
Several big players are working with mRNA biotechs to co-develop treatments. One of the most advanced programs is AstraZeneca and Moderna’s mRNA drug for heart failure, which passed its safety goal in a phase IIa trial in November 2021. BioNTech took its Genentech-partnered mRNA cancer vaccine into phase II in October 2021. And this week, the German big pharma Merck recruited eTheRNA in Belgium to co-develop therapeutic vaccines for undisclosed indications.
Ethris’ respiratory infection treatment appears promising, reducing viral load and mortality from influenza and Covid-19 in recent preclinical studies. However, commercializing treatments for viral infections like Covid-19 won’t be plain sailing. For example, Ethris and the Swiss antibody company Neurimmune discontinued the joint development of mRNA treatments encoding antibodies to tackle Covid-19 after teaming up with great fanfare in 2020.
Rudolph told me that the decision to end the project was due to emerging variants of concern, which can blunt the effectiveness of antibody drugs. Additionally, the market is becoming tougher to enter as increasing numbers of competing Covid-19 therapies gain approval.
3 February 2022: Article updated to mention Merck and eTheRNA collaboration
Cover image via Elena Resko