AstraZeneca makes RNA play, teaming up with startup to advance twist on red-hot modality

AstraZeneca is making a play for the red-hot RNA market. Rather than move directly onto turf fought over by the likes of BioNTech, Moderna and Sanofi, AstraZeneca has teamed up with a new British startup that has put a twist on the idea of using nucleic acids to trigger production of a molecule.

The startup, VaxEquity, grew out of work done by Imperial College London’s Robin Shattock that, like the broader sector, was thrust into the limelight by COVID-19. Shattock and his collaborators set out to develop a self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) vaccine against the coronavirus. The approach, like the far better known mRNA, entails using nucleic acids to order the recipient’s own cells to make a targeted molecule.

The twist is that saRNA also encodes for proteins that enable RNA vaccine replication. Equipping the nucleic acids to self-amplify could enable less frequent or reduced doses, lower costs and open up a wider range of potential applications. That promise, which Gritstone bio is also separately exploring with its own saRNA technology, has attracted AstraZeneca.

Here’s how the deal breaks down: AstraZeneca will provide VaxEquity with R&D funding and invest in the biotech as part of a long-term effort to optimize and validate the saRNA platform. In return, AstraZeneca will gain a chance to work with VaxEquity on up to 26 drug targets.

The vast number of targets covered by the deal means VaxEquity could end up pocketing a sizable sum. AstraZeneca is on the hook for up to $195 million in milestones for each program it moves into its pipeline, plus mid-single-digit royalties.

VaxEquity is still a long way from commercial sales, but it does have early evidence that its approach translates to the clinic. Imperial fell well behind other riders in the COVID-19 vaccine race but made it into the clinic last year and reported phase 1 data this summer, providing both preliminary validation of its previously untested saRNA technology and evidence of how much work still needs to be done.

The phase 1 trial tested saRNA doses ranging from 0.1 μg to 10 μg. To put that in context, Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine delivers 100 μg of mRNA. The vaccine was immunogenic right down to 0.1 μg, but none of the doses achieved 100% seroconversion. Shattock and his collaborators responded to the setback by setting out plans to refine the design to boost the immune response.

At VaxEquity, Shattock has taken up the chief scientific officer post. Mike Watson, who led Moderna’s infectious disease team for three years and worked as a consultant on its COVID-19 program, served as the CEO of VaxEquity in its early days before moving into the executive chair role this month.