2022 Tang Prize Laureates in Biopharmaceutical Science and key figures behind the successful development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines Drs. Katalin Kariko, Drew Weissman and Pieter Cullis were invited to attend the Tang Prize Taiwan Biotechnology Forum, taking place on August 3 in the Hoard Civil Service International House in Taipei. Surrounding the topic “mRNA: the Next Generation of Medicine,” the forum saw three laureates engaged in lively discussions with representatives from Taiwan’s government agencies, academic circles and industrial sectors on the latest development of mRNA technology, its applications and the potential outlook.
The forum, following the 2022 Tang Prize Laureates’ Lectures held on August 2, was co-organized by the Tang Prize Foundation, the Development Center for Biotechnology (DCB), Taiwan Bio Industry Organization (TBIO), and the Institute for Biotechnology and Medicine Industry (IBMI). President of DCB Chung-hsiun Wu served as the moderator for the forum, while Deputy Minister of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Yijuang Chern, Academician of Academia Sinica Andrew H.-J. Wang, and CEO of TTP Biopharm Company Limited Sara Hou participated as the panelists.
As the topic of the moment in the global biopharmaceutical community, mRNA technology attracts much attention from governments and private sectors worldwide as it holds immense potential for further research, development and application. Besides mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, it can also be applied in other medical areas, such as cancer treatment, gene therapy and infectious diseases.
Dr. Weissman remarked that COVID-19 vaccines were not born overnight. In fact, the development of the mRNA-LNP vaccine platform has been underway for many years and it was initially used to prevent HIV and influenza infection. That was why when the pandemic hit, it can be reprogrammed to develop COVID vaccines so quickly and had such amazing effect. Currently, researchers are also working on tackling many other diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, various allergies, autoimmune diseases, and hereditary diseases. Therefore, Dr. Weissman believed we had reason to be optimistic about the potential the RNA-LNP technology holds for the future. In addition, he pointed out that it was possible to include multiple antigens in an mRNA vaccine. This approach can lengthen the interval between each vaccine shot and reduce the frequency of immunizations. Asked about if mRNA vaccines could replace all types of vaccines, Dr. Weissman was unsure about the inevitability of it as mRNA vaccines represent a field that is still in its infancy.
Reflecting on the rapid progress in the medical application of mRNA technology, Dr. Wang informed the audience that Academia Sinica had formed a team focusing on promising research topics. He stressed that it was very important for Taiwan to create its own IP portfolio in the realm of biotechnology applications. To achieve this goal, Academia Sinica has built a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) pilot plant to provide a place to test new techniques. Knowing that Dr. Weissman has extensive experience in helping other countries set up GMP factories, Dr. Wang also invited him to be a consultant to Taiwan on its mRNA drug development projects.
Ms. Hou mentioned that developing new drugs was a time-consuming process that required cross-border and cross-sector collaboration in order to put to good use each other’s strengths and resources. At the moment, there are more than give hundred clinical trials being conducted to target more than twenty diseases. If researchers in Taiwan were interested in developing mRNA drugs, Mrs. Hou said, the top priority would be to identify the unmet medical needs and pinpoint genes responsible for certain rare diseases. She also expressed the hope that the government can act as a bridge between academia and industry as well as provide substantial assistance, including regulatory guidelines and funding. She was confident that Taiwan’s biotech companies had the ability to fully commit themselves to the research of groundbreaking therapies, bring hope to patients, and enable Taiwan to shine more brightly on the global stage.
Responding to Mrs. Hou’s comments, Mrs. Chern noted that Taiwan had a very robust healthcare system and a comprehensive health insurance database that has so far stored more than 700,000 sequence data entries, allowing researchers to correlate the data to clinical cases. This suggests the possibility of leveraging big data analysis to identify unmet medical needs at the genetic level. She further talked about two recent, core research and development infrastructure projects supported by NSTC to establish laboratories and research platforms in Taiwan. In the future, there will be two to three GMP-compliant facilities on this island where small-scale clinical trials for mRNA therapeutics can be carried out. These facilities can serve to connect research findings from institutions such as Academia Sinica and the National Health Research Institutes. Moreover, there is the Taiwan Clinical Trial Consortium which helps drive many clinical trial research initiatives.
Since the Taiwanese government has been devoted much attention to promoting translational medicine in recent years, Dr. Cullis was asked to discuss the key factors that accelerate the transition from basic science to medical application. He observed that in Canada or North America, the whole process was actually rather cumbersome and inefficient. Thus, he recommended having a clinical development plan in the initial stage of a research project and building a good research ecosystem as well as a good reward and recognition system for science. As for the concern expressed by some panelists that Taiwan was lagging behind others in this area, Dr. Cullis thought there was no reason for such worries and Taiwan should instead make progress at its own pace.
During the roundtable discussion, Dr. Kariko mentioned that there were several factors to consider before the promise of cancer vaccines can be fully realized. mRNA technology can be used to produce different types of cytokines and when mRNA molecules are introduced into the body, immune cells can take up their instructions, and locate and kill cancer cells before they migrate. But a combination of different technologies would also be necessary in order to find better treatments. As for the question from some in the pharmaceutical industry about what therapeutics can be developed to target the types of cancer prevalent among Asian or Chinese population, Dr. Kariko suggested studying the cases of individuals who got lung cancer despite having never smoked before. This approach could reduce the risk of cancer from a prevention perspective.
Making a video appearance at the beginning of the forum, Premier of the Executive Yuan Chien-jen Chen expressed his deep gratitude to the laureates for the significant impact their achievements has made on society. He also mentioned that NSTC and the Ministry of Economic Affairs were actively promoting government-academia-industry collaboration in order to accelerate the development of mRNA technology in Taiwan. In addition, the Executive Yuan has been supporting and investing in the establishment of contract development and manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) to align Taiwan’s standards with global benchmarks and fully realize the practical application of translational medicine. Dr. Chen stressed that Taiwan was blessed with talented researchers and creative minds, and the government placed great importance on the development of mRNA technology. Therefore, he believed collective efforts and collaboration among stakeholders would allow Taiwan to bolster its capabilities in this domain, reach the long-term goal of advancing its mRNA technology, and garner more attention for Taiwan in the international biotechnology arena.
The 2022 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science is awarded to Dr. Katalin Kariko, Dr. Drew Weissman, and Dr. Pieter Cullis “for the discovery of key vaccinology concepts and approaches, leading to successful development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.” They not only helped saved millions of lives but also ushered in a new era of mRNA-LNP technologies that have the potential of enabling more personalized, effective therapies.
About the Tang Prize
The advent of industrialization and globalization ushered in a new era of comfort and convenience through scientific and technological advancements. Yet, a multitude of crises have emerged along the way, such as climate change, wealth gap, and moral degradation. To tackle these problems, Dr. Samuel Yin founded the Tang Prize in December 2012. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. Every two years, four independent and professional selection committees made up of distinguished international experts and scholars, including several Nobel laureates, choose Tang Prize winners from a pool of nominees who have influenced and made substantive contributions to the world, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality or gender. A cash prize of NT$50 million (approx. US$1.75 million) is allocated to each category, with NT$10 million of it (approx. US$ 0.35 million) designated as a research grant to fund laureates’ research and education projects. The hope is to encourage more people with professional knowledge and skills to address mankind’s most urgent needs in this century, and to become leading forces behind the development of human society through their outstanding research and civic engagement.