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How rigorous research built a $US141bn company, Moderna

Moderna co-founder Robert Langer says vaccine development for a range of diseases – not just Covid-19 – will be one of the biggest trends among biotechnology in coming years.
Jared Lynch
The Australian
Oct 27, 2021

Having launched more than a dozen biotech companies, including mRNA vaccine producer Moderna, the question Robert Langer gets asked the most is “what is the next big thing”.

After all, investing in biotechs is not for the faint of heart. For every unicorn that emerges there are scores that fall over in clinical trials. But Dr Langer has a knack of knowing what works, with his 3 per cent stake in Moderna catapulting him into the billionaires’ club.

Since it listed on the Nasdaq in 2018, Moderna’s value has soared from $US7.5bn to $US141bn ($188bn), largely thanks to it developing a highly effective vaccine against Covid-19.

But long before the pandemic, Dr Langer knew he was onto a winner with Moderna, a portmanteau of mode and RNA.

“I’m not surprised that it’s successful,” Dr Langer said ahead of speaking at the Sohn Hearts & Minds investor conference.

“I mean back in 2010 when we started, I remember coming home and telling my wife this was going to be the most successful biotech company ever. I just felt that the right elements – the right technology, the right people involved.”

But none of it would have happened without decades of rigorous research into messenger RNA technology, which instructs the body’s cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response against diseases such as Covid-19.

Dr Langer is quick to highlight this grunt work and the importance of R & D when people approach him at conferences and other events, asking “what will be the next big thing”.

“My answer is that it hasn‘t been invented yet,” he said.

“It is really important to support basic research, so that people can invent the things of the future that don‘t exist. That’s the most common question people always ask – what’s going to be the big thing in the next five years?

“Of course it depends whether you’re talking about something clinical or something that can be transformative like messenger RNA or nanotechnology or CRISPRs and things like that.”

Still, many biotechs are aiming to capture that next big thing, whether it was the race to develop a Covid vaccine or developing a treatment for a rare disease. Before a biotech embarks on clinical trials, the blue sky potential appears endless, only to end up in heartache when things don’t go to plan.

Even established players like Australia’s biggest health company CSL has had some misses, like its homegrown Covid-19 vaccine it was developing with the University of Queensland which it aborted after trials revealed it triggered false positives for HIV.

So what’s Dr Langer’s secret in picking what flies?

“Well, I guess if I were to pick a formula, it is to take a really transforming scientific idea, that would be number one, but that’s also like what I call platform technology, meaning you could use it over and over again, for different things, different diseases for example or different types of drugs.

“That’s validated by in vivo data and by excellent scientific papers. In fact, one thing investors ought to look and see where some of the seminal papers that lead to that company are published. Are they published in top journals like Science or Nature, or not? And that they have very good intellectual property, that they have excellent business people, that they have excellent investors, that would be my general area.”

For the near term, a spotlight is going to be cast on vaccination – and not just for Covid-19, which most health experts are expecting will be part of our lives for decades, requiring booster shots and research into more next generation vaccines to combat challenges such as cold chain storage.

“What you’ll see is more and more vaccines being produced. We will see, at some point, better ways of delivering them to patients. And you'll certainly see a lot of vaccines based on our messenger RNA for other diseases,” Dr Langer said.

“If you look at the Moderna pipeline, there’s about nine different diseases that we're studying for vaccines.”

These include therapeutic vaccines for cancer as well as prophylactic vaccines to build immunity against viruses like Covid.

And the main thing that Dr Langer is focused on is his connection to lab work.

“The major thing I still do is run my academic lab. To me it’s a team effort. My students want see their doctoral work or postdoctoral work lead to products that could help people and I want to see that happen too.

“It’s really been a team effort I’ve had the good fortune of working with some excellent investors, excellent CEOs. The science part I can help a lot with but I’ve had the good fortune of working with very good people in the other areas and that’s been key.”

And in his lab could be the next big thing. About 150 people in his team are working on a range of projects from a single-step method – meaning all its takes is one dose to inoculate someone against a disease for life – pills that only need to be taken once a week, a month or even a year; and children’s nutrition.

“We’re working on new children’s pills. We’re also working on new ways of giving nutrition. There’s about 2 billion children or people that are malnourished, we’re working on ways of also delivering nutrients much better to people,” Dr Langer said.

“And then the other giant area that we work on in our lab we started many years ago called tissue engineering, which is ways of making new tissues and organs from scratch. That’s actually led to skin for burn victims, there are clinical trials for making new blood vessels and there are other clinical trials for spinal cord repair, hearing loss. So there are all kinds of things you could do.”

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This article was originally posted by The Australian here.

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