The EU's 2014 vaccine innovation prize has gone to German company, CureVac. CureVac's Dr Ingmar Hoerr tells us why the temperature stable RNA molecule is great for vaccine delivery in Africa and Asia.
DW: CureVac specializes in the messenger-RNA molecule in vaccines research. The mRNA is striking in that it remains stable even at very high temperatures, making it perfectly suited for delivering vaccines in Africa and Asia. And you've been awarded the European Commission's first innovation inducement prize, worth 2-million-euro. But what exactly is the mRNA molecule?
Dr Ingmar Hoerr: It's a new bio-molecule, which we invented 14 years ago. It has taken us 14 years to reach the stage we are at now. We are already in clinical studies, testing it on cancer patients, and we're doing prophylactic vaccines. And this prize here is for the prophylactic vaccines, because our vaccines are very, very stable, so you need no cooling to distribute them. I think this is very important because most vaccines have to be stored in a fridge, and, if they're at room temperature, then they are not active any more. We can avoid that, and so I think that, especially for developing countries, this is a big chance to have these vaccines on the market.
So why is it so stable at high temperatures? Up to eight weeks at 60 degrees, is that correct?
That's correct - it's fantastic because this molecule, RNA, was regarded as a very unstable molecule in the beginning, but we could flip this disadvantage into an advantage, and now it's stable at room temperature for about two years; you can even heat it up to 70 degrees for two months - and that's a higher temperature than we have here on earth, for example. So this is fascinating to have this in our hands, and especially, what I really liked, was that nobody believed that this would be possible in the beginning. Now we have shown it officially and won this prize, so we're very grateful for that.
You've taken a new route, in that a lot of the work previously was done via DNA. Can you explain the difference?
We have three bio-molecules on earth. There's DNA, which is chromosomic material, then we have RNA, which is the messenger delivering information from DNA to a protein, and then we have the protein, and that of course is what bio-tech is all about - but it's very difficult to produce proteins outside the body, to do it in cell cultures and that kind of thing. So we thought: why not work on the information, on DNA and RNA?
DNA is cumbersome, it's not that easy-going, it's too stable, you can't really work with it; so we chose RNA, and RNA is a molecule which is exactly what we wanted to go for - it takes the information to a protein and then it's degraded, it vanishes away. So if you have a prime shot of a vaccine, you can be sure it's gone, and then you can get a boost shot, and you're sure it's gone. Especially in our cancer patients, it's very important - some patients get more than 20 shots during their treatment, and we really know what's happening. There's a defined half-life, then it's degraded.
What sort of areas in, let's say, the developing world can you see the RNA molecule being applied?
We've started now with a rabies trial in Germany - this is a trial where we learn about dosage, how it reacts, side effects, this kind of thing. But it could be a product for developing countries: rabies is a big burden in India and this would be a good vaccine for that.
You were recently in Hyderabad, and one thing you were told there was that people see no incentive to innovate, with the cost per dose at just one dollar. Explain that to us, because I thought the idea was to reduce the price per dose.
I think vaccines all over the world are regarded as a commodity. Everybody takes staying healthy for granted and no-one cares about having a vaccine shot. The incentive is very low with a dose at below one dollar, especially in developing countries. So how do you develop innovation? If you look at the cancer vaccines, there's one from a company called Dendreon, which costs $80,000 (57,500 euros) a year and the cancer patient only survives four months longer. But if you regard what you're doing when you get a flu shot or a rabies shot, where you survive 100 percent, this is a big difference, so I think we need to be more aware that there is something very useful in the vaccine business. Society should take more responsibility and maybe co-fund, so that innovations can happen in this very low cost business.
If that's the business model, then what we are seeing is vaccines and drugs produced in order to maintain a certain situation rather than eradicate it - but surely that's the wrong way round.
Exactly. Someone in India told us, it's a kind of life insurance business. So maybe we should use the way insurance companies operate as a benchmark, when you say: if you pay now, you will do better in the end. And I think it's the same here: if you pay now for a vaccine and get a shot, then you'll do well when you get older. Maybe this is more a life insurance business than a health business.
Dr Ingmar Hoerr is the CEO of CureVac, a German biopharmaceutical company associated with the University of Tübingen.