Founded in 2010, Moderna uses messenger RNA, which carries genetic information from DNA to ribosomes to produce proteins. Moderna hijacks mRNA and uses it to carry a copy of the genetic sequence of the virus, which prompts the production of the antibodies to that virus.
Messenger RNA is similar to computer technology in several ways that offer promise for lowering costs, Bancel said. For one thing, it’s an easily replicable process. “We call mRNA the software of life,” he said. “You can copy and paste the information into a lot of drugs by using the same technology.” That means “the way we make mRNA for one vaccine is exactly the same way we make mRNA for another vaccine,” he added. It just carries a different genetic sequence depending on the disease.
That means the same manufacturing process and facilities can be used for many different vaccines. Plus Moderna’s process uses less expensive raw materials (water and enzymes) which lowers the overall costs. Bancel talked about building a platform. “We think if we digitalize and robotize [things], like in any platform, we could scale very quickly,” he said.
The mRNA platform is promising, but new. A Q&A on the Moderna website notes that “we are still early in the story,” with the company’s most advanced vaccine in phase 2 clinical testing and “no approved drugs to date.”