Looking for the next mRNA breakthrough, Moderna taps AbCellera in mysterious antibody discovery deal
Moderna’s success with its Covid-19 vaccine has busted the dam open on a range of potential mRNA therapeutics — and now the biotech is pushing to keep the cutting edge in-house. A new partnership with standout antibody discovery outfit AbCellera could help keep the ball in the competition’s court.
Moderna will partner with antibody player AbCellera on up to six undisclosed targets for a range of mRNA-encoded drugs harvested from AbCellera’s bustling discovery platform, the companies said Wednesday.
Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, and the partners are staying mum for now on specific targets, but AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen indicated to Endpoints News the hit list would expand out past infectious disease, where both companies have largely focused during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The deal will include undisclosed research milestones due to AbCellera, with Moderna picking up the development costs and AbCellera owed royalties on the back end.
AbCellera rose to international fame as part of its collaboration with Eli Lilly that has churned out multiple antibodies for therapeutic use against Covid-19. But the discovery specialist has some 140 projects in the works in and out of infectious disease, Hansen said, and is looking to leverage an engine that Hansen described as one of the fastest in the industry across many therapeutic areas.
For Moderna, the shift into what is known as mRNA-encoded antibodies is nothing new and an early focus before the pandemic shifted R&D focus onto vaccines. The idea would be to use mRNA to “manufacture” monoclonal antibodies for therapeutic use in vivo, cutting out the expensive and infrastructure-heavy production process.
Pairing up Moderna, which helped provide proof-of-concept for the entire field of mRNA therapeutics with its Covid-19 vaccine, and AbCellera could be a force multiplier in terms of rapidly discovering and developing antibody therapeutics that could be game changers in drug development, where monoclonal antibodies currently dominate.
“For me, one of the exciting and big motivators of this is that Moderna has proven the speed at which you can deploy RNA-based vaccines, and that by all rights should transfer well into other therapeutic areas,” Hansen said.
While details remain slim on how exactly this collaboration will play out, Hansen said the speed at which AbCellera can turn out candidates and at which Moderna is capable of handling preclinical development could rapidly speed the partnership’s race to the clinic. Does that mean years or months? Hansen wouldn’t say, instead highlighting his excitement over the potential of both companies working together.
“If you wanted to invest in one platform modality outside of vaccines that would be broad and have a lot of potential, it would be hard to come up with something that would beat antibodies just based on the diversity of targets and the mechanisms of action,” he said.
The deal is another clue on how Moderna — now one of the most highly-valued pharmaceutical companies in the world based in large part on the success of its Covid-19 vaccine — could use its post-pandemic cash windfall to set itself for a future full of innovation.
Part of that plan is, of course, mRNA and the future of that technology, but Moderna has also planned to lean in on gene editing and genomics, announcing in August it would establish a “Moderna Genomics” unit to chase down cutting-edge therapeutics in that space, as our founder John Carroll outlined at the time.
Meanwhile, Moderna noted it was looking for smallish licensing deals that would complement its growing pipeline and this AbCellera pact clearly fits the bill. Is this a sign of things to come? We’ll have to wait and see.