US pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Moderna has become a household name thanks to its COVID-19 vaccine. But what many don't know is that Moderna has only been around for a little over a decade.
When it was formed in 2010, Moderna developed its entire drug discovery and manufacturing processes around digital or the idea of being infused by artificial intelligence. It was a biotech startup born in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.
Speaking as part of AWS Summit Online Australia and New Zealand, Dave Johnson, Moderna's VP of informatics, data science, and AI, shared the Moderna story, starting with how it was able to develop a COVID vaccine so quickly.
"Moderna started working on our vaccine for the novel coronavirus the moment its sequence was released by the Chinese authorities," Johnson explained. "Just a few days later, we had finalised the sequence for mRNA vaccine, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, and started manufacturing right away."
The first clinical grade batch was released on February 7, and the first subject was dosed on March 16 -- only 65 days from sequence to dosing.
"This is truly unprecedented for a process that normally takes many, many years," he said.
Johnson said Moderna ran the clinical studies to prove the effectiveness of its vaccine straight away, reaching milestones so quickly due to the programmable nature of mRNA and the platform the company built.
"This platform is enabled by our digital infrastructure, which leverages workflow automation, data capture, and AI to accelerate processes and deliver insight to our scientists, and additionally, Moderna parallelises drug development processes that are typically staged sequentially," Johnson said. "Really early on, still running preclinical studies on our new COVID vaccine, we were already running manufacturing so that we wouldn't miss a day to get to our clinical studies."
At its heart, Johnson said, mRNA is an "information molecule".
"Everyone is probably familiar with DNA, which is the long-term storage of genetic information, and encoded in your DNA are instructions to produce tens of thousands of proteins that are responsible for countless functions in your body," he explained.
"And mRNA is the molecule that carries those instructions from your DNA to the rhizomes in your cells, where those instructions are read and proteins are synthesised. By creating your own synthetic mRNA, we can encode information for any protein we want from critical enzymes that might be malfunctioning in a rare disease, to an antigen from a virus to trigger an immune response, which creates a vaccine."
He said when Moderna was founded, it was on the understanding that if this mRNA technology worked for one application, it could work for countless more, and all that would be needed was to change the information and code it for a new application.
"We've purposely designed the company with a platform approach … this led us to design a processes to be really high throughput," he said. "We integrated digital technology and AI algorithms to accelerate those R&D cycles and give us really unprecedented scale."
Moderna built its own drug design studio, a web-based app hosted on AWS Fargate.
"That allows our scientists to design novel mRNA constructs, use AI algorithms to optimise them, and then order them from our high throughput preclinical scale production line," Johnson said. "Behind the scenes, the drug design studio leverages numerous AI algorithms -- we have algorithms that design mRNA and DNA sequences … we have algorithms that automate logistics decisions, we have algorithms that automate quality control steps, which saves countless hours of manual review, but it also improves quality of those analyses, because the algorithms can often detect things that are not apparent to human eyes."
He said these algorithms have been leveraged for thousands of unique mRNA constructs that Moderna's scientists are designing, including its COVID vaccine.
"We very purposely designed all this infrastructure that we think of as an AI factory, in order to rapidly deliver algorithms from concept to production, to enable our scientists to leverage the power of AI in their daily jobs," he said.
But while Moderna's COVID vaccine gets a lot of the focus, for good reason, Johnson said mRNA has far greater applicability.
"We're rapidly expanding our portfolio of infectious disease targets, including much more complex viruses, like CMV [cytomegalovirus]," he said. "The vaccine we're working on, requires synthesis of six different proteins in concert to attack that virus.
"It's really this flexible, programmable nature of mRNA, combined with Moderna's digital landscape and our platform approach, that we believe could truly revolutionise the way diseases are treated."
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