Saturday, March 06, 2021

Tiny Bubbles Of Fat

bloomberg |  If messenger-RNA vaccines are the breakout medicine of the pandemic, then the tiny lipid spheres that bring them into people’s cells are the unsung heroes.

Lipids catapulted toward the top of the world’s health-care priority list because the potent vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc., as well as others still being developed by CureVac NV and Sanofi, can’t do their job without them. Messenger RNA, the genetic material at the heart of these vaccines, needs a protective shell composed of four different types of the fatty material -- collectively called a lipid nanoparticle -- so that it can successfully journey from factory to a person’s arm, and then get inside of human cells.

“This is an incredibly complex process,” said President Joe Biden, touring a Michigan factory last month alongside Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla, who vowed to produce more lipids -- along with mRNA -- at the facility as part of a push to double vaccine supplies. Biden marveled at the close collaboration between machine technicians, chemists and biologists who were “pioneering technologies that less than a year ago were little more than theories and aspirations.”

For Bob Langer, those aspirations stretch back a lot longer. As early as the 1970s, he was trying to prove you can capture and transport big, complex molecules like DNA and RNA inside tiny particles without destroying them.

“Everybody told me it was impossible,” he recalled during a phone interview. “I got my first nine grants rejected. Couldn’t get a faculty job.”

Turns out it was possible, and Langer wasn’t out of a job for long. Today, the professor has a chemical engineering lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology bearing his name, focused on the intersection of biotechnology and materials science. Following decades of development, Langer in 2010 co-founded Moderna, where he’s still on the board. That company -- like BioNTech and CureVac -- is developing mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases beyond just Covid, along with therapies for cancer and rare illnesses.

“I don’t think people realized just how important the delivery systems are to all kinds of medicines,” Langer said. “If you get more and more complex medicines, like RNA and DNA and things like that, you’ll see more and more work on delivery systems and more and more problems will be solved. Lipid nanoparticles are going to be a big piece of the arsenal.”