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Could This Biotech Start-Up Be the Next Moderna?

By Keith Speights and Brian Orelli, PhD - Updated Jun 28, 2021 at 8:35AM

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Moderna was a pioneer in mRNA. This company hopes to be a winner with eRNA.

Moderna (MRNA 2.72%) has vaulted into the international spotlight more quickly and in a bigger way than arguably any biotech in history. There are probably many up-and-coming drugmakers that would love nothing more than to follow in Moderna's footsteps. Most of them won't be able to, of course. However, in this Motley Fool Live video recorded on May 12, Motley Fool contributors Keith Speights and Brian Orelli discuss a new biotech start-up that just might have a shot at becoming the next Moderna.

Keith Speights: Nearly everyone, I'm sure all of our viewers for our healthcare segment have heard of messenger RNA, mRNA, by this point. Probably most Americans have heard of mRNA by this point.

But there is a biotech start-up, Laronde, that's funded by the same group that launched Moderna. This start-up is exploring eRNA therapies. Brian, what's the story with this new biotech? Do you think it could even be the next Moderna?

Brian Orelli: They raised $50 million in venture capital. As you said, it's the same VC firm Flagship Ventures, I think, that helped start Moderna. This is really early stage. You can't buy shares if the company is not public yet. I'm not sure it's a threat to Moderna or BioNTech or the rest of the mRNA companies yet.

The company creates, as you said, what it calls eRNA. eRNAs are circular forms of RNA based on something called lncRNA. We don't really know what lncRNA does. They don't appear to make proteins, but we do know that they're incredibly stable. Because they're circular, there's no ends to get degraded. mRNA is integrated and once they get taken out by cells or made by cells after a few days, and then circular RNA can last a few weeks to months.

What this company has done is they're taking the stableness of the lncRNA and adding a ribosome entry side in ribosomes or what make proteins, and so now we've got a molecule that's more stable than mRNA and can express proteins.

The E in eRNA stands for endless. They think they can develop up to 100 products over the next decade. The design to get to 100 products, designing them is not all that hard. You know the protein sequence, you can just pop it in this eRNA, and then you can get it to express the protein.

That's not so difficult. If you know the disease is lacking in this protein and you want to express this protein, you just put the sequence for the protein into the RNA and then you can test your hypothesis. Manufacturing, it could be harder to manufacture 100 different products.

It sounds like the company has a plan there for small footprint manufacturing and that could help them get to 100 products in a decade. I think the biggest issue is going to be financing. Clinical trials aren't cheap to run, and the technology seems interesting.

But we've seen some large early stage start-ups get some really high financing at the beginning, and flagships only giving the company $50 million. I think if Flagship really thought this technology was already set and ready-to-go, I think they would've given them a lot more, gotten the syndicate together and invested a lot more.

This year, we've already had Eikon Therapeutics raise $148 million in series A, and Atalanta Therapeutics raise 110 million. If you want to go back a few years, Juno, which is the CAR-T company, when it was clear that CAR-T was going to take off, they were able to raise $176 million in a series A.

I think that tells me that flagship maybe probably isn't as behind this company. It's probably promising, but it's still not worked out whether the emRNA is actually going to work yet, and that's why they're getting $50 million versus $100 or $150.

Speights: All right. Thanks for the explanation. The eRNA story might be one that you and I will talk about more in the future if it catches on. We'll keep our eyes on it.

Orelli: Yes. I think the mRNA companies should be looking out at the eRNA. But the other thing is that I don't think eRNA is going to work through vaccines because you don't want something that gets expressed for a month. I think where mRNA's have signed is in vaccines and then I think that eRNA might be better for long-term therapeutics.

Brian Orelli, PhD has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Keith Speights has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Moderna Inc. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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