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Gates Funding RNA Treatment for HIV Infection

RNA molecule illustration

RNA molecule illustration (Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation)

12 January 2016. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is backing a biotechnology company’s early development of antibodies to treat human immunodeficiency virus or HIV based on RNA, nucleic acids expressed by a person’s genetic code. The foundation is supporting the work of Moderna Therapeutics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with an initial $20 million grant, and options for follow-up projects on other infectious disease therapies with additional funding of up to $80 million.

While research over the past 30 years is advancing the understanding of HIV and new treatments are making the condition more manageable, HIV and AIDS continue to be a critical public health problem. In the United States alone, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 1.2 million are living with HIV, as some 50,000 new cases are reported each year. The agency estimates 14 percent of people with HIV do not know they have the condition. Worldwide some 35 million people are living with HIV, of which 3 million are children, according to World Health Organization.

Moderna develops medications that use genetic material to produce therapeutic proteins in the body, with a technology based on research licensed from Harvard University and MIT. That technology harnesses messenger RNA, a nucleic acid related to DNA delivering genetic code used by cells to produce the amino acids in proteins for carrying out human functions. Moderna designs what it calls modified messenger RNA to produce proteins that act like drugs as treatments for diseases, creating antibodies with the potential to cut the time and expense for creating therapeutic proteins over current recombinant methods.

The Gates Foundation funding supports Moderna’s work, through the company’s Valera LLC subsidiary formed about one year ago, to test antibodies created with messenger RNA to treat HIV infection. Valera develops vaccines and therapies from engineered messenger RNA designed to express viral antigens and induce an immune response. The new project calls for Valera to test a combination of antibodies as HIV therapies in preclinical studies, as well as conduct early-stage clinical trials.

Yesterday, Moderna and Valera revealed a licensing deal with the pharmaceutical company Merck for a vaccine code-named mRNA 1566 to address an undisclosed viral disease target. Moderna already had a partnership agreement with Merck, which this new deal supplements. Under the new agreement, Merck will lead further development and commercialization, while paying Moderna upfront and milestone payments, as well as royalties on sales.

Moderna and Valera also disclosed yesterday another vaccine candidate code-named mRNA 1440 will soon begin early-stage clinical trials in Europe. The announcement was made in the context of Moderna becoming a clinical-stage biotechnology company in 2015. Science & Enterprise reported on Moderna several times since its founding in 2010.

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