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Plant-Based Lipids Developed for mRNA Vaccines



28 May 2021. Chemists at industry and academic labs created safer lipids for delivering messenger RNA vaccines, such as those protecting against Covid-19. The new plant-based lipids result from a collaboration between researchers at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany and CordenPharma, a contract development and manufacturing company in Plankstadt, Germany, which recently began manufacturing the lipids.

Messenger RNA or mRNA vaccines, including the Covid-19 vaccines developed by biotechnology companies Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer now authorized in the U.S. and elsewhere, deliver their payloads in nanoscale particles made of lipids, a natural fat substance. Lipids not only package the mRNA and are insoluble in water, they carry the payloads inside cells, where the particles also have a positive charge that reacts to cells’ acidic contents to release the mRNA. Moreover, lipids provide a protective layer for mRNA that help stabilize vaccines for longer storage.

While lipids may be natural substances, the cholesterol in lipids is derived in most cases from human or animal fats. Using these fat sources for cholesterol increases the risk of transmitting abnormal animal proteins causing transmissible spongiform encephalopathies or TSEs, a rare type of irreversible brain-wasting disorder. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease,” is a form of TSE.

Quickly and easily synthesizing cholesterol

A team from the Institute of Chemistry at Otto von Guericke University, led by chemical engineering professor Dieter Schinzer, worked with CordenPharma to discover techniques for making plant-based cholesterol alternatives without TSE-causing proteins. “Out of the long-established cooperation between my department and the company,” says Schinzer in a university statement released through EurekAlert, a large study was set up to look into possible cholesterol manufacturing scenarios. At the end of last year the team of researchers succeeded for the first time in quickly and easily synthesizing cholesterol.”

CordenPharma adapted this discovery into its manufacturing processes, and now offers the plant-based cholesterol alternative for lipid nanoparticles, branded as CP BotaniChol, with the company applying for a patent on the invention. In April, the company announced an expansion of its manufacturing facility in Boulder, Colorado, adding more lipids production lines. By July, says CordenPharma, delivery times for vaccine lipids would be significantly reduced. The company’s lipids are used in Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines, produced at CordenPharma’s plants in France and Switzerland, as well as Boulder.

Schinzer notes that deriving cholesterol from plants will simplify vaccine production and help reduce shortages. “This production process,” says Schinzer, “is an important step towards overcoming the shortage of lipids in the production of the lifesaving vaccines needed across the world in order to successfully combat the pandemic.”

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Pfizer.

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