AstraZeneca teams up with Imperial offshoot VaxEquity on an RNA 3.0 effort

Last year, Imperial College London professor Robin Shattock was given close to $50 million by the UK government to make an RNA-based Covid-19 vaccine. While that fell through, the deal his company VaxEquity just signed with Big Pharma could be worth almost four times that amount — with increased exposure to boot.

Introduce AstraZeneca, which just signed a deal worth $195 million in milestones with Shattock’s company on a platform based on Shattock’s work on a new type of RNA as self-amplifying RNA, or saRNA. AstraZeneca and VaxEquity will collaborate on up to 26 drug targets, which remain undisclosed.

Executive chairman Mike Watson Endpoints News that one of the goals for the partnership is to validate the platform with AstraZeneca and essentially get right back into the clinic. As parts of the platform, which he calls “RNA 3.0,” have already been tested clinically with Shattock’s Phase I/II Covid-19 study conducted last year, it may not be a traditional 5-10 year R&D route, as Watson put it.

“We would hope within two to three years, we’ll have good preclinical data that will confirm that this is working as well as we think it is,” he said.

The main point of saRNA is that you could essentially get a stronger effect with a smaller dose, Watson said. A company using saRNA could make RNA-based therapeutics and vaccines using a smaller dosage and still be effective — using a dosage anywhere from 1/3 to 1/10th the amount of a dose you might see in an mRNA treatment. This could allow for both decreased price and increased scalability.

The new deal comes as the industry broadly dives deeper into RNA technology follow the success of the mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines by Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna over the past year. GSK signed deals worth several hundred million dollars with mRNA company CureVac CureVac and Sanofi committed to building out its own mRNA center, in part with assets from a $2 billion buyout of Translate Bio.

Speaking of Moderna, the Cambridge biotech tried to focus on mRNA treatments — not just vaccines — just four years ago, until they ran into safety problems. They were, at the time, struggling to find a balance between not using enough mRNA to be effective without triggering side effects in animals.

Watson, who led Moderna’s infectious disease team for four years, said that because their RNA self-amplifies after it enters the cell, you should be able to dose less often and at lower amounts than conventional and accomplish many of the things Moderna — which has kept work on mRNA treatments as a second priority — originally sketched out.

“If your RNA continues to self-amplify for days and weeks, you can start with a lower dose. The area under the curve is vastly larger than if you’ve got a fleetingly translating modified RNA,” Watson said. “So, that means you can think about a whole range of therapeutic targets, whether that be antibodies, whether that be therapeutic proteins, whether that be gene therapy.”

A small firm consisting of only five employees, VaxEquity plans to add 5 more employees within the next 2-3 weeks, effectively doubling their current employee base, Watson said. They plan to advance their own internal pipeline, while also working on new types of RNA altogether.

“Covid has been fantastic in providing this sort of … impetus to bring RNA through very, very quickly. We’re seeing RNA version 1.0. This is probably version 3.0. And it’s not self amplifying RNA, it’s modified self amplifying RNA. What about 4.0? What about 5.0? …We’ll be looking at that as well,” Watson said.

Back