Major boost for mRNA vaccines targeting ‘Disease X’

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Efforts to develop a next generation of mRNA vaccines capable of targeting Disease X – an as yet unknown pathogen with pandemic potential – have received a multi-million cash injection.

The Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) has announced $2m (£1.64m) of funding for Tiba Biotech, an American pharmaceutical company with promising new RNA technology which may be cheaper, more effective and triggers fewer side effects.

The development of mRNA vaccines was a major success story during Covid, and billions of doses have been administered across the globe. But scientists are racing to develop new and improved jabs which offer “substantial advantages” in tackling Disease X, existing or emerging pathogens with the potential to spark the next pandemic.

Current mRNA vaccines have to be kept at super-cool temperatures, complicating distribution in some lower-income countries, and are reactogenic – meaning they produce slight side effects, including fever or small reactions, in some patients.

Cepi, which has a track record of backing successful vaccine candidates, has bet on the technology from Tiba Biotech to solve some of these issues.

Existing mRNA vaccines coat slithers of mRNA code – the molecules which prompt human cells to make Sars-Cov-2 antibodies, triggering a protective immune response – in lipid nanoparticles, tiny balls of fat which protect the fragile genetic instructions as they are delivered to cells .

However, these balls of fat are slightly inflammatory – which contributes to localized side effects. Tiba Biotech is developing an alternative delivery route: biodegradable RNA nanoparticles, which do not need to be encased in lipids.

The company believes these can be stored for long periods in a fridge at four degrees, ending the need for ultra-cool cold chain infrastructure that has limited rollout in some regions.

It also says the organic molecules are potentially less inflammatory, which could enhance their performance and reduce side effects.

Dr Richard Hatchett, chief executive of Cepi, said that although mRNA shots delivered a “revolution in vaccinology” during the pandemic, “there is scope to substantially improve the technology to make it more effective and accessible”.

“We are excited by Tiba Biotech’s nanoparticle approach which we think may reduce adverse reactions and improve the thermostability of mRNA vaccines,” he added. “Such advantages would make mRNA vaccines easier to use and potentially increase their accessibility and acceptability in many countries.”

The latest seed funding will be used to support the design, development and preclinical evaluation of a vaccine candidate for Japanese encephalitis, a brain infection spread by mosquitoes.

If the data generated is successful, the collaboration could be expanded to develop shots against pathogens with pandemic potential, or ‘Disease X’. This is part of Cepi’s $3.5 billion plan to create a library of prototype vaccinesso jabs can be rapidly developed and rolled out if threatening new diseases emerge.

“This initial focus on [Japanese encephalitis] is just the start to developing, expanding and enhancing RNA vaccine rapid-response capabilities against known and unknown threats,” said Dr Christian Mandl, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Tiba Biotech.

“We are confident the collaboration with Cepi will demonstrate the unique advantages of our… delivery platform in producing safe and effective mRNA vaccines for the global community.”

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