ETheRNA nabs €34M for mRNA vaccines—including COVID-19 candidate

Belgium’s eTheRNA picked up €34 million ($38 million) to bankroll the development of its mRNA technologies as well as a suite of mRNA immunotherapies for cancer and infectious diseases, including a program against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The company spun out of Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel back in 2013 with its TriMix mRNA technology, which is designed to boost the immune response through the dendritic cell pathway. It is named for a trio of mRNA molecules that enhance the T-cell responses—caTLR4, CD40L and CD70—and that could be the basis of therapeutic cancer vaccines or localized tumor treatments.

ETheRNA backers Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, Omega Funds, Fund+, LSP and PMV returned for the series B round, joining new investors Grand Decade, BNP Paribas Fortis Private Equity, Yijing Capital and Novalis LifeSciences.

The company will use the proceeds to move its programs into the clinic and look into potential partnerships. It’s agreed with Grand China Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Holdings, which owns Grand Decade, to sketch out terms for a “possible exclusive strategic partnership for mRNA manufacturing, independent research and development, production and commercialization in Greater China,” according to a statement.

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ETheRNA did not specify which of its pipeline programs would move into human trials first. It’s working on mRNA vaccines for kidney cancer and head and neck cancers that express HPV, as well as oncolytic mRNAs that mimic the action of oncolytic—or cancer-killing—viruses. It is developing a COVID-19 vaccine in a consortium with partners in Europe and North America with eyes on clinical trials in 2021.

“We are excited that the current series B financing provides eTheRNA with the opportunity to advance its oncology and infectious diseases pipeline further into the clinic, with the primary objective being to demonstrate clinical proof-of-concept in the near term, including for its proprietary LNP [liquid nanoparticle] platform enabling intravenous delivery of (neo)antigens,” eTheRNA chairman Russell Greig, Ph.D., said in the statement. 

“We are delighted with the response from both existing and new investors. In addition, the strategic partnership with China Grand Pharma opens a wealth of opportunities in this potentially vast market and we are looking forward to concluding this partnership,” Greig added.

ETherRNA isn’t the only player developing an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19. Moderna Therapeutics is gearing up for a phase 3 test of its candidate, while tandem Pfizer and BioNTech are looking to ramp up their work in the fall with a study involving thousands of patients. CureVac is working on one, too, and Sanofi also jumped on the mRNA bandwagon, expanding its infectious disease pact with Translate Bio to include COVID-19.

CureVac and BioNTech have both told regulatory agencies that they would need to “abbreviate” the vaccine approval process to speed up development and get vaccines to market. Despite the speed at which vaccine makers are working, there are no mRNA vaccines on the market, so there is no road map to indicate how long it would take to make, approve and manufacture this type of vaccine at a massive scale.