There’s a messenger RNA battle brewing in Cambridge, MA.
CureVac, a Germany-based mRNA company spun out of the University of Tubigen 15 years ago, said this morning that it’s opening up a U.S. hub in Cambridge. Karen Slobod, a former Novartis Vaccines executive, will head the new outpost, whose focus will be developing mRNA-based prophylactic vaccines for things like HIV, respiratory syncytial virus, and the flu. CureVac is also using the new digs to reach out to U.S.-based investors and pharma companies, it said in a statement.
The expansion puts CureVac right on the turf—both geographic and scientific—of Moderna Therapeutics, the high-flying Kendall Square-based drug developer that’s raised nearly $1 billion in venture cash and partnerships. Indeed, one of Moderna’s nascent startups, Valera, is developing mRNA vaccines and therapeutics for infectious diseases.
Moderna is an unusual biotech story. Like CureVac, the company is trying to develop a completely new class of drugs: synthetic versions of mRNA—the molecules that carry genetic code to the part of the cells that manufacture proteins. MRNA drugs are meant to enable patients to make their own therapeutic proteins inside their bodies.
Moderna has used a series of fundings (including an eye-popping $450 million round in January) and partnerships (among them deals with Merck, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, and AstraZeneca) to help amass about $900 million in cash. It’s even become a startup incubator of sorts, birthing a “venture creation” unit last June to start a bevy of companies—three so far. That’s all before starting its first clinical trial, though CEO Stephane Bancel has said that the Moderna expects to have several mRNA drugs in clinical testing by the end of 2016.
CureVac has been around longer, and also has its own share of deals, with Sanofi, Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation put $52 million into CureVac, the largest investment it’s made in a biotech. In total, the company has raised about $225 million in equity funding. (Check out this story from EP Vantage for a detailed look at the differences between the two companies.)
CureVac has also already begun testing mRNA therapies in humans; a prospective mRNA immunotherapy for prostate cancer is in Phase 2b trials. In June, the company published a study of its mRNA work in animals in the peer-reviewed journal Molecular Therapy. And today CureVac is announcing a new partnership, with the non-profit International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, to try and develop an mRNA-based AIDS vaccine.
“Expansion into the U.S. is an important step in CureVac’s corporate and clinical growth as it will enable us to capitalize on the numerous research and business opportunities related to our industry-leading mRNA technology platform,” CureVac co-founder and CEO Ingmar Hoerr said in a statement.
Kendall Square photo courtesy of flickr user jamie_okeefe via Creative Commons.