AstraZeneca Invests in Imperial’s Self-Amplifying RNA Technology With Eye on Future Drugs

By Reuters
September 23, 2021 Updated: September 23, 2021

LONDON—AstraZeneca Plc on Thursday struck a deal with the firm behind Imperial College London’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine to develop and sell drugs based on its self-amplifying RNA technology platform in other disease areas.

Under the deal, VaxEquity, a startup founded by Imperial vaccinologist Robin Shattock, could receive up to $195 million if certain milestones are met, in addition to royalties on approved drugs and equity investment from AstraZeneca and life sciences investor Morningside Ventures.

AstraZeneca already produces an adenoviral vector COVID-19 vaccine and emphasized the potential of the self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) technology in new therapeutic programs beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

“This collaboration with VaxEquity adds a promising new platform to our drug discovery toolbox,” said AstraZeneca research chief Mene Pangalos.

The technology works in a similar way to the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

However, a self-amplifying RNA vaccine not only encodes the instructions for the host cell to make a coronavirus protein, but makes lots of copies of the RNA containing those instructions, meaning doses can be smaller and cheaper.

“It’s a bit like having a manufacturing facility, and instead of having one copy of the recipe, you have multiple copies that you can hand round to multiple production lines within the cell to produce more protein,” Imperial’s Shattock told Reuters. “So that’s why it has that opportunity to use lower doses.”

AstraZeneca, under the deal, has the option to collaborate on 26 drug targets for use against diseases like cancers and rare genetic diseases.

U.S. companies Gritstone bio and Arcturus also are developing saRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

Shattock said that Phase I results of its refined vaccine would be ready early next year.

“The reason we were slower was because we were coming from an academic setting,” he said. “If we had this relationship (with AstraZeneca) at the beginning of 2020, we might have been faster.”