Awarded for a method that enables full development of RNA-based medicines

​RNA-based therapeutics had their big breakthrough as a Covid vaccine. But in order to also be able to cure cancer and other diseases, a refined technology is needed that increases the uptake of RNA into the cell. Elin Esbjörner and Marcus Wilhelmsson have led a research team that has developed a method that facilitates this development. For this, they now receive the Areas of Advance Award.

Elin Esbjörner They are from different research areas, but have shared lunch rooms for many years.
” We have talked for a long time about collaboration to test if Marcus' fluorescent short RNA could be used in live cells but have never had a platform for it. In 2017, we, together with other researcher at Chalmers and other Swedish universities, received a large research grant that made it possible,” says Elin Esbjörner, associate professor at the Department of Biology and Biolocical Engineering.

The FoRmulaEx research center was formed and a goal was set - if everything went well, they would have a method to produce fluorescent mRNA within six years.
It took three.
“mRNA is a molecule that assist in translating the genetic code to protein. It is used in Covid vaccines, but it also has great promise for cancer vaccines and to treat different types of genetic diseases. The potential is huge. But for this to work, these large and fragile molecules must become better at getting into the cells and reach their target. The functional uptake into the cells today is at best a few percent.”

Marcus WilhelmssonThis is where the fluorescent mRNA comes in. Marcus Wilhelmsson, professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, explains that it behaves like a natural mRNA, even though one of RNA’s own building-blocks here is replaced by a corresponding fluorescent building-block that has been developed by the team.
“In this way you can follow mRNA molecules into the cell and see how they are taken up. The method makes it easier for the pharmaceutical industry and academic research groups to accelerate the development of mRNA medicines,” says Marcus Wilhelmsson.

To ensure that the method is utilized, the researchers have submitted a couple of patent applications and with the support of Chalmers Ventures and Chalmers Innovation Office, a company is being started up.
“We are currently looking for a business developer and in a few weeks, the company will be up and running.”


So how long can it take before the new technology can be on the market?
“The fluorescent building block could be on the market within a year. Skilled labs around the world could use it to do their own investigations. A kit for the entire technology, which includes information about the production of the long mRNA strand, may take two years, says Marcus Wilhelmsson.

The method has already received a lot of attention, not least since the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) selected the project and the innovation for its annual 100 list. The Areas of Advance Award is another recognition that the results of their research which has also been done in collaboration with AstraZeneca, makes a difference.

“Sweden is not known for having many academic prizes, so it is nice to get that attention. It´s an honor, especially when you think about the talented people who have received the award before. We are very proud”

Related:
The FoRmulaEx research center

Text: Lars Nicklasson

Page manager Published: Fri 17 Sep 2021.