3D illustration of ribonucleic acid (RNA) strands
Credit: Christoph Burgstedt/Getty Images

The Biden Cancer Moonshot program has launched a “Curing the Uncurable via RNA-Encoded Immunogene Tuning” (CUREIT) program to develop generalizable mRNA to better fight cancer and other diseases. This is just one of several programs to be sponsored by the administration’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Two others have already been announced in precision surgical technologies and tissue regeneration in osteoarthritis.

CUREIT will be led by a team at Emory University in Atlanta with up to $24 million in new funding. The project’s goal is to create a toolbox of mRNA and related technologies that could be used to “turn on” helpful immune responses, such as prompting immune cells to target and attack tumors.

Last year, Congress established the ARPA-H to “drive breakthroughs to prevent, detect, and treat cancer and other diseases,” according to a release.

This ARPA-H funding supports the work of Philip Santangelo, PhD, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Santangelo Lab will aim to develop a novel class of mRNA-based drugs to precisely “turn on or turn off” genes in individual immune cells.

“By combining mRNA-encoded antigens with gene modulation technology, we will be able to radically enhance specific immune responses,” says Santangelo. “This technology, which operates transiently without modifying DNA, can offer a potential breakthrough in treating cancers, autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases.”

The research plan unfolds along two pathways. In the first, mRNA-based drugs will directly target immune cells within the body, triggering the expression of critical target proteins and meticulously modulating gene activity for improved immune function. The second approach employs a streamlined, fully functional cell-based therapy, combining messenger RNA-expressed antigens and gene modulators outside the body to prevent and treat diseases. These pathways, adaptable to diverse disease types, will be employed independently or in tandem to elevate vaccines and standard treatments.

CUREIT is the first award from the ARPA-H Open Broad Agency Announcement, which seeks transformative ideas for health research breakthroughs and technological advancements. The application period is open until March 2024 and future projects will be funded on a rolling basis.

In 2021, mRNA burst onto the scene when the first vaccines for COVID-19 were developed using the technology. These vaccines alone are generating over $10B in sales per year.

Other applications of mRNA could extend to autoimmune disorders, transplants, and infectious diseases. “A toolbox of mRNA platforms offers the potential to transform the fight against cancer and other difficult diseases,” the Biden administration says.

Last month, ARPA-H announced the launch of its first program targeting cancer—the Precision Surgical Interventions Program—to develop novel technologies that will allow surgeons to remove cancerous tumors with more precision and accuracy, resulting in better health outcomes for Americans facing cancer.

ARPA-H also recently announced the Novel Innovations for Tissue Regeneration in Osteoarthritis (NITRO) program to develop new ways of helping the human body repair its own joints, with the goal of revolutionizing treatment for osteoarthritis—a common and often very painful condition where bones and cartilage break down.

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