The German biotech industry has always been treated like an orphan by venture capitalists, business angels and other providers of capital. Hardly two percent of the figure invested in US-American Biotech companies in 2013 has been invested in the same year in the German equivalent (18.8 billion$ versus 325 million$).
Therefore it’s quite a suprise that with CureVac (a spin-off of the University of Tübingen) a German biotech start-up has been chosen to be the largest ever equity investment of the famous and renowned Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
What exactly is CureVac doing – and will their products revolutionize medicine?
Our DNA contains our genetic information. In order to produce a certain protein (e.g. almost all enzymes, fibers like collagen, the molecules to assemble the contractile machinery of our muscles etc.) out of this information the specific part of the DNA needs to be read and saved in a messenger molecule – the so called mRNA. The mRNA functions as a construction manual for the ribosomes (those are the “craftsmen of our cells”) that eventually build the proteins out of the necessary amino acids.
CureVac did not only produce mRNA artificially for a certain purpose, they also successfully imported it into the cells for the ribosomes to make proteins out of them. This technology has the potential to take humanity a great leap forward – maybe even further than companies like Apple, Snapchat or Uber could dream of. CureVac created a new class of drugs.
One of the opportunities in practice are efficient, inexpensive vaccines. mRNA-based vaccines do not need a cold chain and are therefore a perfect fit for an easy, global distribution. Furthermore the time of production is only about seven weeks which is way less than how long it currently takes to produce a vaccine. This feature is highly desirable for future pandemics.
Even more exciting are the chances in the field of cancer immunotherapy. CureVac actually achieved to optimize mRNA in a way, that helps recruit our own immune system in the fight against the cells affected with cancer. It happens some kind of “professional training” for our immunes system that helps identify specific cancer antigenes (antigenes are molecules that are typical for foreign/”hostile” cells/bacteria/substances that let the body identify particles in our body that don’t belong there). Also it recruits a strong response of the immune system.
German biotechnology, quo vadis?
CureVac is one of few biotech companies sponsored by SAP-founder and multi-billionaire Dietmar Hopp. Even though there are some other German business angels that try to help German biotech (e.g. the Strüngmann brothers that once founded Hexal and now optimistically bet in favor of the German biotech research efforts), but there have to come more enthusiasts. Right now we are dealing with a viscous circle. There are few investments, few successes and high risk awareness.
Let’s hope that the investment of Bill Gates will encourage investors to support (German) biotech!