When you hear the word “spaceflight” what are the first names that come to mind?
It’s bizarre that the potential answer here could be Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. But 2021 has been an exciting time for billionaires looking to reach space via their own private rocket companies, with two very public blasts courtesy of Bezos’ Blue Origin and Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
While the media buildup and showmanship of the two launches made them virtually impossible to ignore, the flights would not have been possible without contributions from decades of astronautics research, testing, technology advances and, unfortunately, explosive failures. Unmanned, suborbital flights — essentially, flights that travel to the “edge” of space but don’t have the energy to achieve orbit — began back in the 1940s, and by 1961, two American astronauts had successfully made such a journey.
And yet, like it or not, both Bezos’ and Branson’s flights to the edge have become high profile milestones in a promising new era of privatized space travel — a budding market fueled by zealous fervor and lots and lots of cash.
Recently, on the pharma front, a different type of technology took its first human flight.
On Sunday Dec. 13, 2020, many of us watched with teary-eyed awe as trucks carrying the country’s first authorized COVID-19 vaccines slowly pulled out of Pfizer’s Portage, Mich. manufacturing plant. Though the unpolished footage lacked the glitz and glamour of a billionaire space launch, it marked the first time in history that any mRNA vaccine was approved for human use.
While COVID catapulted mRNA to stardom, the pandemic is not where the story began.
The mission started in the 1960s, when mRNA was discovered and translated in the lab for the first time. Decades later, in 1990, scientists began exploring mRNA as a therapeutic. Since then, mRNA vaccines targeting HIV, Zika, rabies, influenza and cancer have entered human trials but none have mustered the thrust to make it out of the clinic.
But now, with over 330 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines administered in the U.S. alone and the vast majority of us having had firsthand experiences with the shots, the future for mRNA feels different — even, limitless.
Just like the nascent market for space tourism, there are still many kinks to be worked out, especially when it comes to large-scale production of mRNA. As you will read in this month’s cover story, improvements such as optimized IVT reactions, faster and more efficient purification processes, more temperature-stable drug formulations and higher quality, more consistent raw materials will enable mRNA to soar to new heights.
Fortunately, technology suppliers are hard at work, drug pipelines are stocked, investors are ponying up and the space is brimming with partnership opportunities.
The countdown to mRNA’s expansive future — one that stretches far beyond COVID vaccines — is well underway and the next frontier in medicine is now more than just a lofty aspiration.