One of the approaches therapeutics companies are taking to developing vaccines for COVID-19 relies on what’s called an mRNA (messenger RNA, which essentially provides cells with protein production instructions) vaccine, a relatively novel method that hasn’t yet resulted in a vaccine approved for human use (though approved mRNA vaccines do exist for veterinary treatment). Making mRNA is a fairly specialized affair, and one biotech startup that focuses on its production has raised $17 million in special purpose funding to ramp up its manufacturing capacity.
Boston-based GreenLight Biosciences raided the additional funding from a combination of new and existing investors, including Flu Lab, Xeraya Capital and Baird Capital, and will use the new funds to both expand its mRNA production capacity in order to support the creation of “billions of doses” of potential COVID-19 vaccines for use in trials and eventual deployment, should any candidates prove effective.
Meanwhile, GreenLight is also developing several different versions of its own mRNA-based vaccine candidates to potentially prevent individuals from contracting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to the COVID-19 infection. Some of the funding will also go toward its work in this area.
Various companies have spun up mRNA vaccine candidate development, and some have already entered into clinical trials, in response to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. These mRNA vaccines essentially work by providing a set of specific instructions to a person’s cells to produce proteins that are capable of blocking a virus, preventing it from getting a foothold in the body. It’s a different approach from traditional vaccine development, which involves using either deactivated, or small doses of activated actual virus to trigger an immune response in individuals.
Indeed, mRNA vaccines have that advantage of being relatively safe because they contain no actual virus, with shorter pre-clinical development times as well, meaning the whole cycle from development to testing and deployment is shortened. That’s made them a popular area of focus and investment specifically to handle outbreaks and pandemics, but as mentioned, thus far none has been fully developed and approved for human treatment.
This investment is a bet that mRNA vaccines not only prove effective in humans, but that they become a valuable and ongoing resource in curbing not only this pandemic, but other viral threats, including the existing standard influenza, and others.