A system that uses the immune system to hunt down cancer will take center stage at a Nobel Prize winner’s conference next week. A Nobel laureate on Monday gave a glimpse of the systems she and a colleague have studied at moderna, a private company based in Cambridge, Mass. Both Heidi E. Friedman and her fellow researcher, Morteza Moazami, believe that these vaccines produce a stronger immune response at age 6 through 11, a high point in childhood’s immune system, than existing vaccines used now.
The approach that they’ve studied is known as in situ optoelectronics, and they’ve shown that it can make the immune system sense a virus in cells within about 90 minutes after it comes into contact with it. The cameras in the vaccines measure how much light is being reflected back to them. Using light to measure the material that’s changed by a virus will make the genetic material change in the proteins that are targeted by the vaccines. That in turn gives the body the correct response to neutralize the virus.
The scientists have built early versions of their in situ optoelectronics. Those videos have already been used for several cancer-fighting uses, including in a vaccine called Keynote. The system at moderna is currently built as an algorithm that uses light’s ability to carry information, so it’s easy to write more powerful algorithms. It’s also easier to take a fully-functioning version of the system and adapt it for other problems. For example, the system could be used to trigger the human body to detect and fight off an outbreak of malaria or influenza in a relatively short time. Moderna has also been developing a strain of the virus that would cause antibodies to be produced and fight off other diseases.
Friedman, who was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine last year, will present her work at a conference on Moderna next week. She now has the goal of trying to jump-start the system by trying to do something with Keynote: identify an adult version of the protein. Friedman’s work focuses on an early version of the virus. After it becomes adult, she and her colleagues want to try to replicate their own technology on it so it works on adults as well. These possibilities reveal a lot about the future of moderna.
Friedman’s experiments come at a time when the government is currently studying a vaccine that would work in the same way that moderna’s hope to, in some way. Meanwhile, this month the American government approved a new vaccine that will be called Fluzone. A government study found that older adults living in communities had a better chance of developing the disease than people living in small rural areas.
In a phone interview, Daniel Schuster, managing director at Moderna, said the rise of this sort of vaccine was largely thanks to modern medicine in general. “This is the culmination of decades of work toward immunization of the population in large numbers with a very broad range of viruses,” he said. “It’s really meant to generate an immune response that will protect against future infections and future challenges.” He declined to say what price Moderna would charge for their vaccine. Schuster said the company hoped to “make it extremely well-developed.”
“No one will ever make them for $10 per shot,” he said.
Moderna is one of the most ambitious private companies in biotech. Along with vaccine technology, the company also has programs for drug discovery. Friedman recently warned that we need to start thinking about ways to replace traditional pharmaceuticals with more preventative approaches that we can use to live longer. She says this will require new approaches to disease research.
“We’re in this thing of trying to understand immunology of these viruses,” she said. “Not really by going after something that’s killing you, but to understand what immunologists know, that you’re protecting yourself.”
Some of that work has already been done. The innovation that Moderna has shown so far is its ability to learn by watching. The company isn’t just using moderna’s technology, but also those of others that have been making progress in detecting pathogens with extremely sensitive vision. Moderna, for example, has been able to use the image-detection system developed by the nonprofit Bioight Center for Disease Detection.