BRUSSELS—CureVac, a company based in Tübingen, Germany, that develops RNA-based vaccines and therapies, has won a €2 million prize awarded by the European Commission to stimulate new vaccine technologies that might help the developing world. An expert jury says that the company's research could lead to a new generation of vaccines that don't need refrigeration—a massive benefit in many poor countries where power and equipment are in short supply.
Most of the prize money will go to new research and a company party, but CureVac also plans to use some of it to build an exhibit honoring Friedrich Miescher, a 19th century Swiss scientist whose discovery of nucleic acids isn't widely known.
So-called inducement prizes have become more common in recent years; the idea is to raise awareness of a particular social, scientific, or technological problem, and spark innovation to solve it—without prescribing how. Unlike research grants, they are accessible to anybody, not just to bona fide academics or business players. The vaccine prize, awarded at a ceremony held here on Monday, is the first time the European Commission has adopted the idea. There will be more such prizes under Horizon 2020, however, the commission's new 7-year research funding program.
The commission launched the vaccine award to encourage innovators to solve the “cold chain” problem: According to the World Health Organization, up to half of all vaccine doses are wasted worldwide, partly because they are not transported and stored at a steady, cool temperature. Of the 12 teams that had submitted a full application, several focused on improving refrigeration systems. But CureVac claims it can do away with that need altogether by producing vaccines that are stable at room temperature for long periods of time.
The company is developing immunotherapies for cancer and prophylactic vaccines against infectious diseases, both based on RNA molecules. The central idea is to encode an antigen as RNA and inject that into the skin of the patient, whose own cells then produce the protein that triggers an immune response, either to kill tumor cells or to prevent an infection. CureVac's most advanced project is a prostate cancer therapy that is now entering a second phase II clinical study; a vaccine against rabies is in phase I tests. In November 2012, the company also showed, along with scientists from the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, that the technology could lead to a new generation of flu vaccines.
CureVac CEO Ingmar Hoerr says the E.U. competition opened his eyes to the potential of RNA-based vaccines for developing countries. In its application, the company showed how stable RNA-based vaccines are. Experiments demonstrated that, even after being stored at 40ºC for 6 months, their rabies vaccine protected animals from viral infection. “We weren't aware that we had vaccines [with such potential], because we were concentrating on the demands of western countries,” Hoerr admits.
Jury member Penny Heaton, director of vaccine development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said CureVac's RNA technology had “the potential for a large and positive impact on public health,” in a statement released by the company on 10 March. Hoerr says that the recognition lends the technology more credibility. “When we started the business, some people were laughing at us, saying: '[RNA] is an unstable molecule, I'll never believe your data, it will never become a drug because it's so costly,' ” he recalls.
"It's really encouraging that this prize fund seems to have been successful in stimulating interesting innovative solutions,” Helle Aagaard, E.U. policy and advocacy adviser for Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign, tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail. “But whether these innovations will benefit those children most in need will depend on how this technology develops and—critically—whether it leads to affordable, accessible vaccines adapted to the needs of the developing world,” she adds.
While the bulk of CureVac's prize money will go to basic molecular immunology research, Hoerr says he also wants to set aside a portion to pay tribute to Miescher, the biologist from Switzerland who identified nucleic acids, a family of key biological molecules that includes DNA and RNA, in his lab in Tübingen. CureVac has proposed to reinstall equipment in Miescher's 19th century lab, in the former kitchen of Tübingen Castle, and to open a public exhibition to highlight his scientific legacy. While James Watson and Francis Crick are considered the godfathers of DNA, Hoerr says, Miescher never received the credit he deserved for isolating and analyzing nucleic acids from pus cells.