AstraZeneca to Help Develop Imperial’s New RNA Technology

AstraZeneca Plc and an Imperial College London startup will work together to develop a potential next generation of messenger RNA technology to fight cancer and other diseases, seeing opportunities well beyond Covid-19.

AstraZeneca will make a “sizable” investment in the company, called VaxEquity, and provide milestone payments of as much as $195 million, funding as many as 26 drug targets, Robin Shattock, the professor leading the research at Imperial, said in an interview. The pair plans to develop both therapies and vaccines, using an approach known as self-amplifying RNA.

“We have had interest from other pharma partners, but I think what is interesting for us in terms of AstraZeneca is their wider interest in exploiting this technology, not just in the infectious disease space,” Shattock said.

The U.K. partnership, focusing also on areas such as cancer and respiratory illnesses, follows the pharmaceutical company’s collaboration with the University of Oxford to develop a Covid inoculation using a different technology. AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine is being used widely around the world. Now the company is keen to build on the success companies such as Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. have achieved in using mRNA technology to develop Covid vaccines.

“This could be applied into all of our therapy areas,” Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s head of biopharmaceutical research, said in an interview. “It’s the next big jump that I think has the potential to further transform the mRNA platforms if we can get it to work.”

Learning From Pandemic

Imperial is working with novel messenger RNA technology, like PfizerBioNTech SE and Moderna, but with a self-amplifying feature aimed at producing a consistent and strong immune response with a much smaller dose. Imperial jumped into the Covid vaccine race in early 2020, but after falling behind the frontrunners the university turned its focus to possible boosters, protecting people against new variants and combating future threats.

“What we’ve learned from the current pandemic is that RNA approaches work and can be quick,” Shattock said. “What self-amplifying RNA brings to the table is that if we can meet the challenge of very low doses, it completely changes the productivity and will enhance global access.”

VaxEquity was founded in 2020 by Imperial’s Shattock and Morningside Ventures.

AstraZeneca isn’t alone in seeing promise in the field. U.K. rival GlaxoSmithKline Plc said earlier this year it had started an early-stage Covid-19 study using self-amplifying mRNA technology.

AstraZeneca meanwhile hopes to have results in the next month or two from a potential variant vaccine it’s developing with Oxford, according to Pangalos. “This vaccine should give us a broader immune response to those variants of concern,” he said.