The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a grant for as much as $24 million for scientists led by Emory University to research mRNA technology, the basis of the COVID-19 vaccines, for possible future use against cancer and other dangerous illnesses.
The grant appears to be the first ever awarded from a new federal fund meant to spend big, gambling for big discoveries in health.
“This is a bold endeavor that has the potential to transform the fight against cancer and other difficult diagnoses,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
It marries two cutting edges of science: mRNA technology; and examining the immune system’s role in cancer.
COVID-19 was the first disease to be fought with mRNA vaccines, and the results showed enormous advances in speed and effectiveness. The first Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were more than 90% effective at preventing infection from the original variant.
The work won’t result immediately in cures or medicines, researchers involved say. However, one described the proposed research and the large “high-risk, high-reward” federal grant decision as crucial steps toward that goal.
“It’s life-changing, game-changing,” said Philip Santangelo, professor of biomedical engineering at Emory University and Georgia Tech.
Santangelo said he has become interested in the notion that an “out-of-whack” immune system plays a role in the damage from cancer and other diseases.
“This really enables you to confront difficult problems, put the resource towards it and make big jumps,” Santangelo said.
The money comes from a scientific research fund Congress created in 2022, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. That’s a takeoff on DARPA, a well-known fund for defense-related research.
Santangelo, the principal investigator on the grant announced Wednesday, studies RNA using computer models, essentially in 3-D. The grant project is a stepping stone. Any resulting cancer prevention isn’t guaranteed and in any case would be years away. In a video commenting on the grant, Santangelo acknowledged the research proposal was “bold.”
This grant is to be deployed over three years, said Emory University spokesman Brian Katzowitz. Santangelo’s lab will collaborate on the work with other researchers from Emory University, as well as Yale, the University of Georgia, and Transimmune AG.