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The Spotlight on mRNA: A Conversation With Moderna

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Teaching the body to make its own medicine

Since its founding in 2010, the biotechnology company Moderna Inc. has been dedicated to researching and developing a molecule that can “teach the body to make its own medicine” – messenger RNA (mRNA).

mRNA presents cells with encoded information to produce a specific protein. This biological function makes it unique – it can be harnessed as both a preventive and a therapeutic molecule, depending on the protein it encodes.

It is also advantageous from a pharmaceutical and public health standpoint. Once a technology platform has been established to safely deliver mRNA to the body, manufacture it and scale-up, this platform can be efficiently adapted for different types of mRNA codes; versatility that is required in states of emergency such as a global health threat.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020, Moderna had already been working on its mRNA technology platform for a decade. As Sunny Himansu M.B.B.S., D.SM – associate director, infectious diseases at Moderna – describes, by the onset of the pandemic, Moderna had solved the technical challenges surrounding mRNA technology. Its focus became how to scale-up and create an efficient process for development and manufacturing it. Consequently, the company was able to rapidly develop its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine – SpikeVax – for global distribution.

In 2021, SpikeVax was approved in 70 countries, and most recent statistics state that approximately 145.99 million doses of the vaccine have been administered globally.

Recently, Moderna announced its partnership with the non-profit research organization IAVI. This collaboration will focus on how to best employ mRNA technology to overcome key healthcare threats across the globe, including bacterial and viral pathogens such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis (TB). Moderna’s mRNA platform will be harnessed alongside IAVI’s experience in product development to accelerate the discovery and production of vaccines- and antibody-based therapeutics. Some of these programs are already in clinical testing, while others are progressing through pre-clinical development.

Technology Networks had the pleasure of interviewing Himansu to discuss what’s next for Moderna, how the collaboration with IAVI aims to make mRNA-based preventives and therapeutics globally accessible and the future of mRNA in medicine.

Molly Campbell (MC): It has been said that we are now in an “mRNA revolution”. Can you talk about how the mRNA technology landscape has evolved over recent decades, for science to reach this “revolution”? Are there any key challenges or breakthroughs that stand out?

Sunny Himansu (SH): You are correct, the spotlight is definitely on mRNA technology, but mRNA is not new to the scientific and research communities. For nearly 60 years, these communities have understood the potential of mRNA’s ability to teach the body to make a specific protein, making it a unique vehicle for preventing or treating certain diseases.

Over the years our understanding has evolved and we have learned mRNA is incredibly versatile – it has power to teach the body to make its own medicine. By the onset of the pandemic, Moderna had solved most of the technical challenges of mRNA technology and were focused on scaling up a very efficient process of development and manufacturing. However, one of the initial challenges we faced, and have since overcome, was stabilizing the mRNA so it would not be rapidly degraded in the body.

To deliver and protect the mRNA, we have developed expertise in a delivery technology called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs. Optimizing vaccine delivery with Moderna’s proprietary LNP technology has been essential to the success of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine.

MC: For our readers that may be unfamiliar, can you discuss Moderna’s mRNA technology platform and how it can be utilized for vaccines and antibody therapies?

SH: Since our founding in 2010, we have worked to build the industry's leading mRNA technology platform. We spent much of the first decade refining the science of mRNA technology and fine-tuning how we deploy it to prevent or treat illnesses, founded on the belief that the potential for mRNA to help treat and prevent diseases was endless.            

The interesting thing about mRNA is that it has the ability to teach the body how to make its own medicine. At Moderna, we are working on developing and testing new mRNA medicines for a wide range of diseases, a process that starts with identifying a protein that can prevent or treat a certain disease. From there, our scientists design an mRNA that carries instructions for this protein. Moderna’s mRNA products are designed for high protein expression. We encapsulate our mRNA in a hydrophobic lipid nanoparticle (LNP) to protect the mRNA. 

As an applied example, to make an influenza vaccine, our scientists created a mRNA vaccine that directs the body to make proteins called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase to help your immune system fight off different flu strains. Moderna is also working on other types of mRNA medicines – not just vaccines. Our scientists are developing mRNA medicines that could help patients with cancer, rare diseases and many more.

MC: Moderna is now partnering with IAVI to combat global health priorities. Can you discuss how this partnership came to be?

SH: Our main priority is and always will be to protect as many lives as possible through the power of mRNA technology, and the partnership with IAVI will allow us to work toward our goal of meeting the challenge of a range of global health threats, including HIV/AIDS, TB, antimicrobial-resistant enteric infections and COVID-19. These diseases are estimated to have resulted in at least 95 million new infections and more than 4 million deaths in 2020 alone. Our hope is that combining Moderna's mRNA platform and IAVI's expertise in discovery and product development will help us advance vaccines and antibodies designed to be globally accessible, especially in low-income countries where the targeted diseases have high incidence and prevalence.

MC: What are the key goals for the partnership, and how will the partnership support both the development and increased accessibility of mRNA-based vaccines/ antibodies?

SH: The goal of this partnership is to leverage the power of the mRNA platform to accelerate the development of products for challenging yet high public health impact indications such as a vaccine against HIV-1. With Moderna’s platform and IAVIs antigen design we aim to leverage the synergistic expertise to tackle these specific disease states and pathogens.

MC: Can you discuss Moderna’s clinical pipeline and why specific focus areas have been chosen?

SH: We are dedicated to pursuing innovative solutions to address infectious diseases that pose the greatest risk to public health through collaborative research and development.

We recently announced four new initiatives aimed at advancing mRNA vaccines for the prevention of infectious diseases. First, a commitment to expand our global public health portfolio to 15 vaccine programs targeting priority pathogens that threaten global health. Second, to accelerate research with the aim of advancing additional vaccines, we launched a new program – mRNA Access – that offers researchers use of Moderna's mRNA technology to explore new vaccines against emerging or neglected infectious diseases. Additionally, we are expanding our patent pledge to never enforce COVID-19 patents in the Gavi COVAX AMC for 92 low- and middle-income countries.

Finally, we announced that with the assistance of the U.S. government, we have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of the Republic of Kenya to establish Kenya as the location for its mRNA manufacturing facility.

These initiatives reflect the organization’s desire to impact global health through our technology.

MC: For Moderna, what does the future of mRNA look like in medicine?

SH: At Moderna, we believe that if mRNA can treat one disease, it has limitless potential to be leveraged across other therapeutic areas.

Over time we learned that speed is a benefit compared to traditional vaccines. We also learned that we could deliver combination vaccines against a variety of pathogens with just one dose. Luckily mRNA technology has the potential to give people instructions to make diverse medicines with their own bodies.

Sunny Himansu was speaking to Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.