The Bloomberg School's Durbin recalls the buzz that materialized about 20 years ago over DNA vaccines, which promised the same advances as mRNA-based vaccines: quickly and cheaply made vaccines that triggered really good immune responses. But DNA vaccines didn't produce as good of an immunogenic response in humans as they did in mice during testing. And one of the main issues with DNA vaccines was ensuring that the DNA was delivered to the right spot inside the body.
"We had a similar sense of excitement and possibility with DNA vaccines that haven't quite panned out the way we hoped," Durbin said. "People will be very interested in these Zika vaccine results."
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It remains to be seen whether mRNA-based vaccines, like the one Moderna is currently testing for Zika, can stand on their own. There are unresolved questions: How many doses of an mRNA-based vaccine will be needed to get a good immune response? How long will that immune response last?
And yet, Moderna is plunging ahead with its work on mRNA-based vaccines. Through its partnership with Merck, the company plans to develop personalized cancer vaccines. The Gates Foundation has pledged up to $100 million to develop mRNA-based vaccines for infectious diseases; the first $20 million is being used by Moderna to develop mRNA-based antibody therapeutics to help prevent HIV infection.
Coming online in the middle of 2018 is a manufacturing facility in Norwood, Massachusetts. Bancel said it will be a factory capable of producing 1,200 products a year, where Moderna will make the mRNA required for a slew of vaccines. Scientists eager for testable mRNA will just have to enter, through an online automated system, the specific protein they want to direct a cell to make; vials filled with mRNA will then get shipped.
"My bet is that in the next five years, we'll have two times as many drugs in the clinic than anybody else in the world," said Bancel. "We're just warming up now."
— By Andrew Zaleski, special to CNBC.com