Blog | September 6, 2022

Don't Get Uppity: Match mRNA Science To Your Capabilities — And Vice Versa

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By Anna Rose Welch, Director, Cell & Gene Collaborative
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This article is part one of a four-part series unpacking four of my biggest takeaways from the mRNA Therapeutics Summit, which took place in Boston on July 27 & 28, 2022.

One of my favorite novels, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, begins with a quote that I think is quite fitting for those of us living in the current mRNA/ATMP space:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a company in possession of a good scientific idea [or advanced commercial capabilities!] must be in want of a partner.” 

These may not have been Austen’s exact words, but I dare say this “quote” about partnership nicely summed up one of my biggest takeaways from July’s mRNA Therapeutics Summit. Though we now have several mRNA vaccines on the market, one thing became clear after listening to the opening conference panel of Big Pharma company experts: We have a long-ways to go before we even achieve a mature mRNA platform — linear mRNA (i.e., currently approved vaccines) or otherwise. Not surprisingly, partnerships will be essential in achieving this maturity, both as individual companies and as a collective industry.  

Broadly speaking, maturity in the mRNA space will mean we’ve accomplished several different challenges, including improving thermostability and sequence optimization and achieving more targeted delivery. Of course, each of these efforts comprise innumerable smaller scientific and organizational strategies and to-do lists. But at the end of the day, achieving these must-haves on our to-do lists will require each individual player to think critically and unflinchingly about their capabilities and the limitations thereof, and how other players in the industry might be able to help fill any gaps. (Put aside your “pride” and your “prejudice,” folks.)

Now, you might be thinking — especially if you’re a smaller biotech — that a panel of Big Pharma experts will be approaching the space, risk, and partnership from a different perspective than that of your own ambitious but cash- and employee-strapped company. But I daresay, even those of you at small companies can appreciate and would also acknowledge what these executives from Pfizer, Sanofi, and Eli Lilly acknowledged: No single company — regardless of their talent and resources — has all the capabilities or scientific know-how it will need to succeed in the RNA therapeutics space.

I liked the question Michelle Lynn Hall of Eli Lilly asks herself and her team when weighing how to move forward with a specific project or program: “Are we uniquely suited to succeed?” If the answer is no, then the next natural step is to strike up a partnership. Pfizer’s Kathy Fernando added, it’s integral that companies launch with a culture — or develop a culture — that embraces promising science, regardless of where it may originate (in-house or externally). She went on to explain that Pfizer has initiated a program to incentivize in-house experts to identify promising science outside of the company’s walls that could be the basis of future collaborations. After all, some of the strongest companies we know and love today have all been reliant on some form of partnership to expand their market reach and expertise. Pfizer's Jane True pointed to Apple, acknowledging that they cannot credit their extensive product offerings solely to “home-grown R&D.”

“You get the best of everything when you have access to partners,” True said.

Now, it’s perfectly easy to sit here and type “don’t be afraid to partner” as a best practice. It’s a hell of a lot harder to sit down, analyze your capabilities and strategies, and (perhaps) admit that all the sterling talent and scientific expertise in-house may not be enough to achieve your end goal — be it entering the clinic or expanding your pipeline. However, as these Big Pharma leaders continued to emphasize, this clear-eyed acceptance is foundational for each individual company (large or small), as well as for the industry’s formation in the long run. After all, the RNA therapeutics space is currently ripe with scientific diversity which, in turn, lends an air of mystique around just how diverse a company’s product pipeline and delivery platform could and/or may need to be in the future (i.e., linear mRNA, saRNA, circRNA, siRNA, miRNA, tRNA, etc.).

Like what you read? Check out part 2 here