Messenger RNA vaccines have been at the forefront of the global struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic over the past year. Now scientists are working to upgrade the technology: enter the stage of saRNA, or self-amplifying RNA vaccines.
Among the frontrunners to introduce saRNA technology is the Belgian startup Ziphius Vaccines, which recently raised €29.3M to advance its proprietary platform that could produce a wide array of vaccines. The oversubscribed Series A round, whose original target was €20M, was supported by Belgian Family Offices.
The idea of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines is to deliver genetic instructions to our cells to create proteins that then train the immune system against a pathogen, such as a virus. The saRNA technology builds on this concept, allowing the cells to not only manufacture the proteins but also replicate the instructions and amplify the vaccine’s effect. This means that companies need to manufacture, transport, and store much lower doses of genetic material, perhaps even 100 times less for each injection.
“Startups that use RNA technologies have gained a lot of interest from investors,” said Chris Cardon, the CEO of Ziphius. “From a scientific point of view, it is clear that saRNA has many advantages compared to conventional mRNA.”
Ziphius is one of several saRNA technology developers hoping to carve a niche in the expanding RNA space, including Arcturus Therapeutics and Gritstone Bio in the US. According to recent data by Brandessence Market Research, the market for mRNA vaccines and therapies, which include novel cancer therapies, is expected to grow by almost 30% per year through 2026, when it is expected to reach €2.4B ($2.9B).
The comparative ease in producing saRNA vaccines opens a host of possibilities to solve issues that emerged during the current round of vaccinations. Think fewer delays and increased global coverage. This could particularly help lower-income countries such as India and Brazil, which have been ravaged by the virus in recent months.
“[Self-amplifying RNA technology offers] the advantage of stretching supplies to allow more doses to be manufactured and given — especially critical in an emerging infectious disease outbreak,” said Amesh Adalja, an expert in infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
While the medical benefits of saRNA are still being studied, research suggests they could be impressive: with lower doses of genetic material injected could come fewer side effects, for example. It could also lead to a more varied and durable immune response—this could even open the door to tackling other diseases where traditional vaccines have so far failed. One example is malaria; Yale University researcher Richard Bucala is currently studying saRNA technology to create a vaccine for this disease.
“In malaria, which remains the second leading cause of infectious disease in the world, the use of self-amplifying RNA to vaccinate against the parasite product responsible for immune evasion was associated with an exceptional level of protection in experimental studies,” said Bucala.
“Self-amplifying RNA offers a powerful and potentially universal approach to eliminate the global scourge of malaria and other parasitic infections that have long thwarted the social and economic development of sub-Saharan Africa and many regions of south Asia.”
Ziphius’ cash infusion will fuel the progression of its lead candidate, a Covid-19 vaccine, into phase I. While BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna already have two-shot mRNA vaccines in the market for Covid-19 — with booster shots potentially on the way — Ziphius’ vaccine is expected to have lower production costs and hit a wider range of Covid-19 variants. Additionally, it might also require only one shot.
In recent weeks, much of the biotech and pharmaceutical industry has voiced opposition to the World Health Organization’s suggestion of a temporary intellectual property (IP) waiver for Covid-19 vaccines. Some of this opposition is based on fears of the stifling of innovation and concerns that the move will prove ineffective in boosting vaccine coverage worldwide. In the case of Ziphius, however, Cardon told me that a waiver would in fact make the company’s job easier.
“We support [the] WHO’s standpoint regarding the IP waiver for Covid-19 vaccines since it will allow us to move even faster without any limitations regarding IP infringements on existing patents,” Cardon added.
“Since this will be a temporary situation, it will not affect our future IP position. Additionally, we encourage any gesture of solidarity during this global pandemic.”
Cover image by Anastasiia Slynko.