What drugs did Elon Musk use
Curevac and Tesla are working on a medical revolution
Since Biontech has shown people a way out of the corona pandemic with its vaccine, it has become pretty quiet about the second German biotech company that many have had high hopes for: Curevac. The company, based in Tübingen, is working on a technology that could make the logistics for the vaccinations significantly easier and thus curb the spread of the virus. Even more: it also promises help against other diseases such as cancer.
Curevac is working on a printer for medicines that can be set up in doctors' offices - together with Elon Musk, head of the electric car manufacturer Tesla. It could be nothing less than “a revolution” in pharmaceutical production, says Ingmar Hoerr, founder and boss of Curevac, in a podcast conversation with WirtschaftsWoche editor-in-chief Beat Balzli. The technology could make possible "what has not existed before."
The printer, of which Curevac already has a prototype in Tübingen, is about the size of a car and should be quick to transport and set up. "You can think of it like a refrigerator," says Hoerr, "a mini pharmaceutical laboratory that can print mRNA."
The messenger substance mRNA is used in the human body as a construction guide for proteins - molecules that are responsible for most of the processes in cells. In the coronavirus vaccine, the mRNA of Curevac cells stimulates the production of a virus protein. And that triggers an immune reaction against the virus.
Currently, mRNA vaccines such as those developed by Biontech and Moderna are manufactured in huge factories and from there transported around the world with great logistical effort. Cool boxes and special transporters must ensure that the vaccines are frozen all the way so that they do not lose their effectiveness.
The building instructions come via download
The mRNA printer that Curevac is working on could simplify production considerably. "The printers could be in pharmacies and doctors' surgeries around the world," says Hoerr. The necessary reagents would be delivered there by courier - and the respective prescription for the required drug downloaded via the Internet. The RNAs are then printed on site.
As ingenious as the idea may seem, the implementation has its pitfalls: The drug vending machine must also be a clean room, emphasizes Hoerr, since no substances are allowed to penetrate from the outside during drug production. In addition, the device is a refrigerator so that the sensitive mRNA strands do not disintegrate in the heat.
The Curevac team had the idea for this a few years ago, only the know-how about the production material was still missing. In 2015, the Tübingen-based company therefore started a cooperation with the automation specialist Grohmann from Prüm in the Eifel region. In 2017, Tesla took over Grohmann in order to use the machine manufacturer's technology to automate his car and battery factories more effectively and thus make them more efficient.
Curevac founder Hoerr met Tesla CEO Elon Musk personally to talk to him about the future of the drug printer. "Very affectionate, very easy, really a buddy," says Hoerr of the entrepreneur admired by many. "You could imagine that somewhere on a student exchange."
Musk gave the Grohmann engineers the go-ahead to pursue the Curevac project. Entrepreneurs expressed their enthusiasm on Twitter: Synthetic mRNA makes curing many diseases a software problem. So something that can be solved with the help of computing power and artificial intelligence.
In fact, Curevac is not only working on a vaccine against the coronavirus, but also on mRNA therapies against cancer, among other things. If the mRNA printer actually works, specialists could in future design mRNA drugs on the computer that are tailored to the respective patient.
Tailored anti-cancer drugs
Just as the printer in the office can be filled with ink, the Curevac machine would be equipped with various chemicals. The printer would convert the digital prescription into a physical mRNA drug intended for that one person. Doctors call this approach personalized medicine.
It will take a while until that happens. In the summer, the first mRNA strands should come out of the printer in Tübingen - for test purposes. “There is still a lot to optimize,” admits Hoerr. It will take several years before the device is mass-produced.
If it succeeds, the benefits could actually be enormous: Even in remote regions of developing countries, vaccines against tropical diseases, for example, that experts on the other side of the world have only just designed, could be produced. And new gene therapies for a wide variety of diseases could possibly be produced right where the patients are: in the hospital, by printer.
More on the subject: Ingmar Hoerr founded Curevac and researched RNA technology for twenty years. In the podcast he tells why cancer can be defeated in a similar way to the coronavirus.
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