GSK hands CureVac $294M to form mRNA infectious disease pact

Franz-Werner Haas, interim CEO of CureVac
Franz-Werner Haas, interim CEO of CureVac (CureVac)

GlaxoSmithKline has handed CureVac £234 million ($294 million) to collaborate on the use of mRNA to prevent and treat infectious diseases. The deal, which excludes CureVac’s COVID-19 vaccine, sets GSK up to source up to five clinical-phase mRNA-based vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.

CureVac, supported by its billionaire backer Dietmar Hopp, went years without striking the sort of headline-grabbing, big-ticket deals that helped put its mRNA rivals BioNTech and Moderna on the map. In 2017, CureVac signaled a change in its deal-making plan when Daniel Menichella replaced Karen Slobod as CEO of its U.S. operation. Months later, CureVac landed a deal with Eli Lilly.

Now, CureVac has struck a deal with GSK that features bigger upfront figures than the Lilly pact. GSK is paying £104 million upfront and buying a 10% stake in CureVac for £130 million, as well as making a one-time reimbursable payment of £26 million to reserve manufacturing capacity. GSK is also on the hook for up to £277 million in development and regulatory milestones, plus royalties and up to £329 million in success-based commercial payments. 

In return, GSK has positioned itself to add up to five infectious disease prospects to its pipeline. The agreement tasks CureVac with taking mRNA vaccines and monoclonal antibodies through preclinical and phase 1 trials. GSK, which will fund the work at CureVac, will then step in and take the programs forward. CureVac will retain commercialization rights for selected countries. 

The deal comes amid surging interest in the application of mRNA to infectious diseases. Moderna, BioNTech and CureVac have used their mRNA technologies to emerge as front-runners in the race to develop COVID-19 vaccines, validating the speed, and potentially effectiveness, of their approaches.

CureVac’s COVID-19 vaccine program is excluded from the GSK deal, as is its work to prevent rabies, but the pandemic has still informed the agreement. With COVID-19 showing the need for speed in infectious disease R&D and suggesting CureVac’s platform can meet that requirement, GSK wants to access capabilities beyond its own self-amplifying mRNA (SAM) vaccine technology platform. 

“GSK’s SAM vaccine technology has shown us the potential of mRNA technology to advance the science of vaccine development, and CureVac’s experience complements our own expertise. Through the application of mRNA technology, including SAM, we hope to be able to develop and scale up advanced vaccines and therapies to treat and prevent infectious diseases quicker than ever before,” Roger Connor, president of GSK Vaccines, said in a statement.

The application of mRNA to COVID-19 has centered on the use of the technology to get cells to make antigens that help the immune system recognize the virus. The GSK deal covers similar approaches to the prevention of other infectious diseases but also sets CureVac up to explore the application of its technology to the production of monoclonal antibodies.

Advocates of mRNA see it as a way to turn human cells into drug production plants, thereby ending the need to make the large quantities of purified antibodies required to tackle infectious diseases. Instead, the mRNA drug triggers production of antibodies inside the patient. CureVac positioned itself at the forefront of antibody applications of mRNA by landing a deal with Genmab late last year. 

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