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Moderna’s miracle and why mRNA is the new powerhouse of medicine

Jill Margo
Oct 27, 2021

The powerful technology that has enabled mRNA vaccines to save millions of lives during the coronavirus pandemic has much broader potential, according Bob Langer, one of the co-founders of Moderna.

As a key attraction at the Sohn Hearts & Minds 2021 Investment Leaders Conference in Australia in early December, he will be expounding on this breakthrough technology and what it means for the biotech industry.

Professor Langer, the most cited engineer in the world, is expecting to see an expansion of mRNA, not only with improvements in vaccines for COVID-19, but also vaccines for other diseases such as flu, viral respiratory conditions and cancer. He is also expecting new RNA drugs for rare diseases.

“At Moderna alone, we have 13 or 14 drugs and vaccines in clinical trials and probably another 15 in development,” he said.

Basic research to develop new ways to manufacture and modify RNA, and make better nanoparticles to deliver it, is already under way in many centres around the world.

The interest, activity and investment in this new technology will likely help with the management of the next pandemic.

“Meantime, my feeling is that we will live with COVID-19 just as we live with the flu, but the therapeutics will be much better,” he said.

“It’s remarkable that flu vaccines are less than 50 per cent effective, and now we have mRNA vaccines that are 95 per cent effective.”

Charles Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, will headline the conference. What Mr Munger is to the investment world, Professor Langer is to the biotech world.

He runs the largest academic biomedical engineering laboratory in the world, at MIT in Massachusetts, and holds more than 1400 granted or pending patents, which are licensed or sub-licensed to more than 400 companies.

Passionate about basic research – “you never know where it will go” – he was willing to donate his time to the virtual conference because, since 2016, Sohn Hearts & Minds has given $30 million in donated management fees to several research partners. These include the Florey Institute, The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

When Professor Langer started working on nanoparticles in 1974, he could not have imagined the role they would play in vaccinating people in a pandemic 46 years later.

“But in 2010 [when Moderna was founded] I remember coming home and telling my wife Moderna was going to be the most successful biotech company of all time.”

When the pandemic hit, Moderna’s share price was around $US19. Today it is around $US349, and he is “very optimistic it will continue to do very well”.

“Here’s the beauty of mRNA vaccine. On 11 January 2020, the sequence of the spike protein was published. Two days later, Moderna had designed a vaccine. By March 16, the phase one trial started.

“The reason it was so fast is that you don’t need to grow eggs and purify things as for flu. You design it almost on a computer, make it in the laboratory, you give the body the instructions to make the spike protein, and it does all the work.”

A prolific entrepreneur, Professor Langer has participated in the founding of over 40 biotech companies and has many tips for investors in the sector. One is to make a distinction between sales and value.

“At Moderna, we created a lot of value before we had any sales – and while potential value is key, it’s not necessarily so easy to judge. It’s also a gamble.”

Being able to take a long-term view is also important. “In August 2020, I had a call from The New York Times, and the reporter asked how I could expect Moderna to produce this vaccine [it was in trials] if the company has been around 10 years and hasn’t produced the drug. I told him ’10 years seems pretty short to me’.”

How does Professor Langer manage all his business interests while focusing on research? He has never run a company and leaves that to carefully chosen people who have the expertise.

“I just try to give advice on boards, scientific advisory boards and founding companies. I help with the science, the innovation, sometimes recruiting scientists and troubleshooting with them. I also advise on intellectual property and contribute to strategy – it’s a team effort.”

But for all the enchantment with mRNA, Professor Langer can’t disagree that, ultimately, it too will be replaced some day by something superior.

“Whenever I’m asked ‘what’s next’ in terms of research, I reply it’s something that doesn’t have a name because it hasn’t been discovered yet. And that’s why basic research is so important because it’s usually where those discoveries come from.”

The Australian Financial Review is a media partner of the Sohn Hearts & Minds conference, which attempts to draw the finest investment ideas and insights into a single event designed to raise awareness and funding for medical research.

The online event is on December 3, with tickets priced at $500.

This article was originally posted by The AFR here.

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