CureVac’s Ingmar Hoerr tells us why he returned to take on a pandemic; NGM loses a president
On Tuesday, Ingmar Hoerr stood up from his seat at the head of CureVac’s board of directors meeting in Frankfurt, Germany and walked out the door.
For 18 years, Hoerr had led the company he founded, stewarding it even when investors rebuffed both him and his approach, before 2 years ago handing it off to Daniel Menichella, a longtime biotech business executive who could fuel the financial half of things. Now the world was facing a pandemic and CureVac might be able to build a vaccine and the board, Hoerr said, wanted someone who knew the science back in charge.
When he walked back in, he was no longer chairman and Menichella was no longer CEO. Hoerr had control again.
“Dan was doing a really good job in terms of business development,” Hoerr told Endpoints News, citing a recent deal Menichella signed with Genmab. “But now it’s a different phase for the company. Now it’s a tech phase.”
The sudden switch, announced Tuesday and without comment from Menichella, prompted speculation. “Was it something he said?” asked one publication, noting that he had just spoken with President Trump alongside other vaccine and antiviral developers.
But an interview with Hoerr suggested that the switch was symptomatic of the profound influence this crisis can have on a biotech like CureVac, one that hasn’t developed a single approved treatment over two decades but now finds itself with one of the most promising technologies to combat the growing outbreak. Although other companies building treatments or vaccines against Covid-19 have maintained that their other programs will continue unabated, Hoerr acknowledged that their search for an mRNA vaccine had all but consumed the biotech.
“We have a challenge,” Hoerr said. “We really have to work with just the coronavirus outbreak.”
An accidental discovery
When the outbreak began, CureVac responded quickly. Alongside Moderna in Cambridge, they were one of two main companies developing mRNA vaccines, technology that allows you to quickly build a vaccine out of genetic code alone. Public health officials had in recent years increasingly identified it as a promising technique to respond to outbreaks, and CureVac had relationships with the NIH and the Center for Epidemic Preparedness, which then fully bankrolled their coronavirus vaccine approach.
Although Moderna will be the first company with a Covid-19 vaccine in the clinic, Hoerr claims credit for inventing mRNA vaccines and with good reason.
As a graduate student at the University of Tübingen in the 90s, he set out to study DNA therapies, a popular field at the time. He injected one group of mice with DNA to test the immune response. He injected a second group with RNA as a control, assuming the RNA would disintegrate in the cell. But when he went to look at the readouts, the mice that received RNA had a much better response.
“And I was thinking, ‘wow, I mismatched a bit,’ maybe I was doing the wrong vial,” Hoerr said.
He tried again, emerging with the same result. He began to think about how effective RNA looked and how easy it was to manufacture. It could be used for cancer vaccines, heightening an immune response around the tumor. This was around the same time that Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania were doing their early forays into RNA vaccines, eventually developing technology that would be licensed to Moderna and BioNTech, which has also explored a Covid-19 vaccine and this week was rumored to be discussing an effort in collaboration with Pfizer.
“I had it already in my mind that this stuff was great, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know I’d have to open a GMP facility before starting the trial,” Hoerr said. “It was a huge mountain in front of me and I think at that time I was a bit naïve.”
Hoerr founded CureVac in 2000. In the early years, most scientific interest was still around DNA and Hoerr couldn’t find investor money. To get by, the biotech synthesized RNA and sold it to folks who worked in RNA interference or other synthetic RNA therapies. Slowly, they got enough investment to focus fully on research. The first programs were in cancer, but in 2011, they started a vaccine program. The first target was rabies. Already, though, Hoerr was thinking about pandemics. This was 2 years after H1N1 flu brought the first pandemic of the 21st century.
“I was already thinking in 2011 about outbreak scenario, but you know what? No one was interested,” he said, citing investors and even a large foundation that turned him down.
Eventually, they got funding from DARPA, the US agency that has long seen stopping pandemics as part of its defense mandate. CEPI was founded in 2017 in the wake of the Ebola outbreak and soon teamed up with CureVac on multiple projects, including a mobile machine that can quickly “print” thousands of doses of mRNA vaccines wherever it’s stationed around the world.
A prototype of that machine has been built, but Hoerr laments it’s not yet complete. He spent his first couple days as CEO running from meeting to meeting, catching up on CureVac’s operations as the company refines their coronavirus vaccines candidate.
He talks hurriedly, even in his second language, about the outbreak and the ways in which CureVac might respond. Although public health officials such as Anthony Fauci have said it will likely be at least a year to 18 months before there’s a vaccine ready for humans, Hoerr is imagining all the ways their vaccine might be mobilized rapidly: If shown safe in a few dozen volunteers, he said, it could potentially be given to healthcare workers. He said they are in talks with regulators, who are assessing the situation.
Because CureVac’s vaccines — which have never made it to approval but have some trial data backing them — can be made in 1 microgram doses, they can be made much faster than, say, Moderna’s vaccines. Hoerr says they could build millions of doses by summer, when they hope to start trials, and over a billion in a year or year and half.
Twenty years in, it’s the biggest test CureVac could imagine facing, and Hoerr said he’s ready.
“I’m happy to deliver something,” Hoerr said. “You know, all the time, 20 years we weren’t really delivering anything. We were doing lots of paperwork, and a lot of columns and a lot of readout data, but I feel now we get traction in helping people and not too far from now.”
by Jason Mast
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