AstraZeneca signed a partnership deal with Imperial College London start-up VaxEquity on Thursday to develop a potential next generation of messenger RNA technology to fight cancer and other diseases.
The UK company will make a “sizeable investment” in VaxEquity as it plans to commercialise up to 26 drug targets, according to Robin Shattock, the vaccinologist leading the research at Imperial College.
“We have had interest from other pharma partners, but I think what is interesting for us in terms of AstraZeneca is their wider interest in exploiting this technology, not just in the infectious disease space,” Mr Shattock said.
The deal will see AstraZeneca take a stake in the company, which includes providing milestone payments of up to $195 million, Mr Shattock said, with the partnership focusing on developing therapies and vaccines for conditions such as cancer and respiratory illnesses.
The tie-up will see them using an approach known as self-amplifying RNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid and translates genetic code into proteins.
RNA platforms have become increasingly popular with pharmaceutical companies, including Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, following the success of the Covid vaccines which use messenger RNA, a subset of RNA, from Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna.
The mRNA vaccine leaders now want to use the technology for vaccines in other areas such as infectious diseases and cancer, with AstraZeneca looking to tap into that space.
“This could be applied into all of our therapy areas,” said Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s head of biopharmaceutical research.
“It’s the next big jump that I think has the potential to further transform the mRNA platforms if we can get it to work.”
The British partnership between AstraZeneca and Imperial College follows the pharmaceutical company’s collaboration with the University of Oxford to develop a Covid-19 inoculation using a different technology.
Imperial also jumped into the Covid-19 vaccine race in early 2020, but after falling behind the front-runners the university turned its focus to possible boosters, protecting people against new variants and combating future threats.
Imperial is working with novel messenger RNA technology, but with a self-amplifying feature aimed at producing a consistent and strong immune response with a much smaller dose.
“What we’ve learnt from the current pandemic is that RNA approaches work and can be quick,” Mr Shattock said. “What self-amplifying RNA brings to the table is that if we can meet the challenge of very low doses, it completely changes the productivity and will enhance global access.”
The deal with AstraZeneca is a boon for Imperial College, which saw its spin-out biotech firm Zihipp secure £3.3 million in Series A funding led by the Mubadala Investment Company in January last year.
The biopharmaceutical start-up is developing peptide hormones to combat soaring rates of diabetes and obesity, using research carried out at the university by Professor Sir Stephen Bloom, the executive chairman of Zihipp.
VaxEquity was founded in 2020 by Imperial’s Mr Shattock and Morningside Ventures.