Life Sciences Insight

Moderna, AbCellera join forces to tackle major mRNA opportunity

Moderna’s early vision, years before it became synonymous with COVID-19 vaccines, was to “enable the body to produce its own healing proteins.” Infectious disease and cancer vaccines later rose up the list of priorities at Moderna, but work on the original plan continued—and is now getting a boost through a pact with the industry’s go-to antibody shop AbCellera.

The deal will see Moderna work with Fierce 15 winner AbCellera to identify therapeutic antibodies against up to six targets. Moderna, which will have rights to the molecules, could then create mRNA that encodes for the antibodies and use it to trigger production of the therapeutic proteins inside patients.  

“Two things are needed to develop effective mRNA-encoded antibody therapies: highly potent antibodies that are suitable for expression from RNA constructs and the RNA technology to bring these to the clinic. AbCellera’s world-leading antibody discovery engine is designed to provide the speed, diversity and flexibility to deliver highly potent antibodies for a wide range of drug targets,” Carl Hansen, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of AbCellera, said. 

Moderna became the first company to test a monoclonal antibody encoded by mRNA in a clinical trial early in 2019. However, Moderna is yet to follow up with a second clinical-phase prospect that uses mRNA to encode for an antibody. Moderna has disclosed work on similar drug candidates that use the nucleic acid to trigger production of cytokines and hormones, but the size and rapid rate of growth of the antibody class make it a major opportunity.

Interest in using mRNA to trigger the production of antibodies in the body—rather than making them in bioreactors as happens today—is underpinned by the potential to simplify manufacturing, improve shelf life and enhance tissue penetration. AbCellera now hopes to work with Moderna to deliver the benefits. 

“With Moderna’s experience and expertise in developing RNA-based therapies, we believe this collaboration can quickly realize the potential of RNA-encoded antibodies as a new therapeutic modality,” Hansen said.

Early interest in the approach was clouded by concerns about the safety of the repeat dosing of the lipid nanoparticles used to deliver mRNA. Moderna gave two doses of its lead antibody program to subjects one week apart without causing significant adverse events and sees its platform as suitable for repeat dosing.

Assets that arise from the AbCellera work could join a chikungunya program in Moderna’s pipeline of  mRNA-encoded antibody prospects. The chikungunya candidate, which Moderna moved into human testing in 2019, contains two mRNA that encode for the heavy and light chains of an antibody against the virus. Moderna saw dose-dependent increases in levels of the antibody in its early-phase trial.