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BioNTech to open Cambridge R&D site as it signs cancer immunotherapy deal with UK government

Pharmaceutical company BioNTech is to open a research and development hub in Cambridge after signing a deal with the UK government to provide personalised cancer immunotherapies for up to 10,000 patients by the end of the decade.

The German company - best known here for the Covid-19 vaccine it co-developed with Pfizer - will employ more than 70 scientists in the city, with the first of them expected to start work in the first quarter of 2023.

Scientists in a lab at BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech
Scientists in a lab at BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech

BioNTech’s memorandum of understanding with the government is focused on three areas - providing cancer immunotherapies based on mRNA technology or other drug classes, infectious disease vaccines and investment in expanding its UK footprint.

It means cancer patients in England will benefit from early access to trials exploring personalised mRNA immunotherapies - and BioNTech intends to enrol the first patient as early as the second half of this year.

Its agreement pledges that up to 10,000 patients will be offered such therapies - which include cancer vaccines - by the end of 2030, either in clinical trials or authorised treatments.

The company and the government agreed to accelerate the clinical trials process for BioNTech’s pipeline of both personalised mRNA cancer immunotherapies and infectious disease vaccines, utilising the UK’s genomics and health data expertise.

Prof Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, said: “The UK successfully delivered Covid-19 vaccines so quickly because the National Health Service, academia, the regulator and the private sector worked together in an exemplary way.

“This agreement is a result of the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic as we all experience that drug development can be accelerated without cutting corners if everyone works seamlessly together towards the same goal. Today’s agreement shows that we are committed to do the same for cancer patients.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech
Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech

“Our goal is to accelerate the development of immunotherapies and vaccines using technologies we have been researching for over 20 years. The collaboration will cover various cancer types and infectious diseases affecting collectively hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

“If successful, this collaboration has the potential to improve outcomes for patients and provide early access to our suite of cancer immunotherapies as well as to innovative vaccines against infectious diseases – in the UK and worldwide.”

NHS England and Genomics UK are expected to create the launchpad used to identify suitable patients for clinical trials.

Health secretary Steve Barclay said:“Once cancer is detected, we need to ensure the best possible treatments are available as soon as possible, including for breast, lung and pancreatic cancer.

“BioNTech helped lead the world on a Covid-19 vaccine and they share our commitment to scientific advancement, innovation and cutting edge scientific technology, making them perfect partners for a deal to work together on cancer vaccines.”

Health secretary Steve Barclay. Picture: Health Secretary Steve Barclay Victoria Jones/PA (61712987)
Health secretary Steve Barclay. Picture: Health Secretary Steve Barclay Victoria Jones/PA (61712987)

He added: “This partnership will mean that, from as early as September, our patients will be among the first to participate in trials and tests to provide targeted, personalised and precision treatments using transformative new therapies to both treat the existing cancer and help stop it returning.

“This agreement builds on this government’s promise to increase research and development spending to £20 billion per year and demonstrates the UK remains one of the most attractive places in the world for innovative companies to invest in research, trial new treatments and treat patients more effectively.”

In addition to its Cambridge location - at a site yet to be disclosed - the company will also open a regional headquarters in London, with employees in global and regional supporting functions including regulatory, medical, intellectual property and legal fields.

Hundreds of patients have so far been treated with mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies under BioNTech’s trials for drug candidates created using its FixVac and iNeST1 platforms.

mRNA production in Marburg at BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech
mRNA production in Marburg at BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech

The first mRNA-based personalised cancer therapy developed by BioNTech was administered in an in-human trial back in 2012, with a fully individualised therapy following in a clinical trial in 2014.

Another milestone came in 2015, when the first patient received an exploratory mRNA-based cancer treatment intravenously. BioNTech pioneered the first intravenous nanoparticle delivery of mRNA vaccines in humans.

It went on to develop a Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, which has been used in the UK, the US and European Union and became the first-in-class mRNA drug product in the history of medicine.

mRNA - or messenger RNA - is a type of single-stranded RNA involved in protein synthesis. A form of nucleic acid, it enables the human genome encoded in our DNA to be ‘read’ by cellular machinery. It can be thought of as the translated form of DNA that our cellular machinery can recognise in order to make proteins.

Whereas conventional vaccines are produced using weakened forms of a virus, mRNA vaccines use only the virus’s genetic code which, once injected, enters cells and tells them to create antigens. These antigens are recognised by the immune system, which responds by producing antibodies and activating T cells.

Scientists in a lab at BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech
Scientists in a lab at BioNTech. Picture: BioNTech

In the case of Covid-19, the mRNA vaccine prompts cells to create a harmless piece of the virus’ spike protein to trigger the response so that our bodies are ready to fight Covid-19 when we encounter it.

BioNTech’s pipeline includes vaccine candidates for influenza and shingles, also partnered with Pfizer, and its own malaria and herpes-simplex-virus-2 vaccine programs.

It is targeting more than 10 other infectious diseases in its research and preclinical programs.

When it arrives in Cambridge, it joins arguably the UK’s finest life science cluster, with AstraZeneca’s $1bn Discovery Centre R&D site now up and running on Cambridge Biomedical Campus, which is also home to leading research organisations such as the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Cambridge Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

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