In the late 1990s, Dr. Ingmar Hoerr, founder and CEO of CureVac GmbH, made an unusual discovery in his doctoral research lab that contradicted the scientific belief at the time that RNA was too unstable for clinical use. Dr. Hoerr found that to the contrary, RNA could be administered directly into tissue as a therapeutic vaccine or agent once the biological properties of the molecule were appropriately modified. Based on this novel approach CureVac was born, and continues to grow as a company that develops diverse therapeutic possibilities based on revolutionary vaccination.
CureVac is developing a new class of therapeutics based on mRNA for cancer immunotherapy and prophylactic vaccines for infectious diseases. CureVac’s cancer vaccines are already in Phase IIb, and the prophylactic vaccine approach was published in Nature Biotechnology.
Tom Fowler, Medgadget: What was it like for you to transition from being a scientist to running a biotech company?
Dr. Ingmar Hoerr: When we confirmed that RNA, including antigen-coding messenger RNA, could induce specific cytotoxic T-lymphocytes and antibodies, we realized that we had a significant discovery on our hands. If this vaccination approach could be commercialized and turned into a product, we could potentially change the way patients with debilitating diseases are being treated. I was excited to learn the commercial aspects of taking a novel technology, a completely new approach, out of the lab and transforming it into a therapy for humans.
One of the most important things I learned during my transition from scientist to a CEO is the management of a biotech company from a business perspective. This was just as important as the actual scientific discovery itself. My founding partners and I knew that we needed experienced and motivated individuals to join our team in order to start a successful emerging biotech company. Because of these talented individuals, today CureVac is a group of 120 dedicated employees, and we continue to advance the research and development and commercial potential of RNA-based vaccines.
Medgadget: You lived one year in India conducting field studies on leprosy and HIV in collaboration with the World Health Organization. How did this affect your perspective on vaccines?
Dr. Hoerr: India, like many other underdeveloped countries, faces the challenge of a range of horrid infectious diseases such as leprosy. Even if vaccines are available, the delivery of vaccines from manufacturer to recipient can take up to 18 months, and most vaccines require a stable cold chain. This is a major challenge in tropical and developing countries with poor infrastructures.
I experienced first-hand that “classical” vaccines are not suitable to supply such remote and logistically challenging regions, and, if vaccination of people living in these developing countries will ever become a reality, a different approach is necessary. I am very excited that CureVac’s technology may provide people in these challenging and remote regions with cost-effective prophylactic vaccines for different infectious diseases that are stable at elevated as well as freezing temperatures.
Medgadget: What are some of the newer targets being researched in your lab for RNA therapeutic vaccines?
Dr. Hoerr: We continue to advance our therapeutic mRNA-based (RNActive®) cancer immunotherapy for prostate cancer and lung cancer for which we are currently in clinical trials, and we are working to identify and develop other cancer immunotherapy candidates. We are also developing prophylactic vaccines and are currently evaluating an RNActive®-based rabies vaccine in a Phase I trial to assess safety and tolerability in healthy volunteers and to determine the dose and evaluate routes of delivery.
In our collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur we are working on other promising targets. Our pre-clinical data have shown that RNActive® vaccines are suitable for viral, bacterial and protozoan infections.
Medgadget: CureVac recently won a $2.7 million vaccine prize from the European Commission for developing prophylactic vaccines that can reach remote areas in the world without the need for cooling. Will this shift the company focus toward developing countries and aid work?
Dr. Hoerr: Although we are currently focused on indications that primarily affect the Western world, we do plan to expand to developing countries once we are revenue-generating. This $2.7 million grant will help us in that effort dramatically. Furthermore we signed a framework agreement with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to work in this field.
Medgadget: How is CureVac changing the future of healthcare?
Dr. Hoerr: For a long time it was thought that it is impossible to utilize RNA, the oldest biomolecule, for medical purposes. It was generally accepted that, despite their advantages, messenger (m)RNAs were too unstable and too difficult to manipulate to be efficiently used in the medical field. We overcame these hurdles, and today we can modify and improve messenger RNA by sequence-modification, using naturally occurring nucleotides that greatly enhance the stability and the translation levels without changing the amino acid sequence of the corresponding protein. Now we can harness the previously unknown capabilities of this molecule.
Our goal is to provide the patient’s body with the specific information that is stored in the RNA and allow the body produce its own, custom-tailored therapeutics or prophylactic vaccines. Importantly, mRNA is non-replicative and its half-life does not usually exceed a few days, which makes mRNA a transient and safe genetic carrier that has been shown to t stimulate both humoral (antibody-mediated) responses and cellular (antigen-specific T-cell) responses.
mRNA-based therapeutics are a novel therapeutic class with nearly limitless opportunity. They have a broad applicability for the treatment of human disease and have just begun to transform modern molecular medicine.
Medgadget: What encouragement do you have for PhD candidates and medical technology entrepreneurs that are early in their careers?
Dr. Hoerr: Follow your instincts and fascinations. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Remain curious and don’t be afraid to take risks!
Link: CureVac website…