“Messenger RNA offers enormous potential for a large number of diseases”

In the eyes of the world, messenger RNA (mRNA) remains intimately linked to Covid-19. And for good reason: for its first clinical use, this technology brilliantly won the vaccine race and saved millions of lives. This first victory could herald others. To the point that many are already proclaiming a medical revolution. President of BioNTech, the German company which designed the vaccine marketed by Pfizer, Ugur Sahin describes its possible variations. On the menu: infectious diseases, cancers, chronic pathologies, regenerative medicine.

Messenger RNA technology has appeared in the public eye with the vaccine against Covid-19. Other diseases are now in the sights of laboratories. Which ones?

We are working on vaccines against several infectious diseases with high medical needs such as AIDS, caused by HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The first two are supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All of these projects are currently at the preclinical stage. We are also pursuing, in collaboration with our partner Pfizer, an influenza vaccine program which is now in clinical development. Our objective is to begin clinical trials against malaria and tuberculosis at the end of 2022. Finally, ten additional pathologies are currently the subject of preclinical tests.

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Let us take two major public health issues, influenza and HIV. Vaccines against the first are relatively poor, there are no vaccines against the second. How does messenger RNA offer particular advantages?

Messenger RNA can be a game-changer because it is the ideal tool for triggering immune responses. For influenza, we believe it will help develop cellular immunity, this second line of defense against viral infections, which is added to the first, antibodies. Current seasonal vaccines produce antibodies but few CD4 cells and even fewer CD8 killer T cells. However, studies have shown that CD8 cells play an essential role in preventing severe forms of influenza. From a scientific standpoint, I am particularly interested in the response of T cells.

In addition, the production rate of messenger RNA is shorter and would allow us to develop a vaccine against a better targeted strain. Considering the speed of evolution of this virus, this is essential. Usual vaccines are developed based on selected strains six months before influenza breaks out. With messenger RNA, we can reduce this time to three months, which would allow us to make a decision based on the most recent data, and therefore the most relevant. All this has yet to be validated in a phase 3 trial. This will also require an adaptation of the strain selection process by the World Health Organization (WHO), to keep up with this new rhythm.

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