(Bloomberg) --

AstraZeneca Plc and an Imperial College London startup will work together to develop a potential next generation of messenger RNA technology to fight cancer and other diseases, seeing opportunities well beyond Covid-19.

AstraZeneca will make a “sizable” investment in the company, called VaxEquity, and provide milestone payments of as much as $195 million, funding as many as 26 drug targets, Robin Shattock, the professor leading the research at Imperial, said in an interview. The pair plans to develop both vaccines and therapies, using an approach known as self-amplifying RNA.

“We have had interest from other pharma partners, but I think what is interesting for us in terms of AstraZeneca is their wider interest in exploiting this technology, not just in the infectious disease space,” Shattock said. 

The U.K. partnership, focusing on areas such as infectious diseases, cancer and respiratory illnesses, follows the pharmaceutical company’s collaboration with the University of Oxford to develop a Covid inoculation using a different technology. AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine is being used widely around the world.

Imperial is working with novel messenger RNA technology, like Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., but with a self-amplifying feature aimed at producing a consistent and strong immune response with a much smaller dose. Imperial jumped into the Covid vaccine race in early 2020, but after falling behind the frontrunners the university turned its focus to possible boosters, protecting people against new variants and combating future threats.

“What we’ve learned from the current pandemic is that RNA approaches work and can be quick,” Shattock said. “What self-amplifying RNA brings to the table is that if we can meet the challenge of very low doses, it completely changes the productivity and will enhance global access.”

VaxEquity was founded in 2020 by Imperial’s Shattock and Morningside Ventures.

AstraZeneca isn’t alone in seeing promise in the field. U.K. rival GlaxoSmithKline Plc said earlier this year it had started an early-stage Covid-19 study using self-amplifying mRNA technology.

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