Tesla brings automation expertise to research COVID-19 vaccine

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk may have strong disagreements over the political management of the COVID-19 pandemic, but his actions to help solve the problem are more positive, one of the advances in vaccine technology .In a recent Twitter discussion of the rise in national cases, Musk shared his thoughts on the use of RNA for immunization therapies.

“In principle, I think synthetic RNA (and DNA) has incredible potential,” he replied. “It makes the solution to many diseases a software problem.” Musk then drew attention to Tesla’s current work through Tesla Grohmann Automation GmbH in Germany. “Tesla, as a side project, is building RNA microfactories for CureVac and possibly others.”

CureVac AG is a German biotechnology company founded in 2000 with the primary purpose of using proteins created with stabilized messenger RNA (mRNA) in the therapy of disease. As described on their official website, the company has “… developed[ed] an extensive internal nucleotide sequence library that allows us to optimally assemble the different pieces of the mRNA puzzle for the desired therapeutic use… Each CureVac product can be considered a tailor-made molecular creation. The protein-centric nature of these products can allow the development of a wide variety of therapies, including cancer immunotherapy, antibody production, treatments for rare diseases and prophylactic vaccines.

CureVac’s vaccines use a dose of synthetic mRNA encoded for disease-specific proteins or antigens that induce the immune system to respond and produce antibodies. Musk’s commentary on diseases being a software problem seems to refer in part to this type of technology. The production side of this specialized mRNA seems to be where their relationship with Tesla is formalized. Specifically, the two companies have developed a bioreactor (referred to by Musk as an “RNA micro-factory”) that combines Tesla Grohmann’s automation technology with CureVac’s custom coding and printing of mRNA.

A February 2019 CureVac press release refers to the bioreactor as The RNA Printer ™ describing it as “… a transportable, small-scale, automated messenger RNA (mRNA) printing facility… that can target known pathogens (including Lassa fever, yellow fever) and rabies) and prepare for a rapid response to new pathogens previously unknown (called by WHO “disease X”). Several partnerships and grants have been accumulated by CureVac to further develop the machine’s capabilities, and the race for a COVID-19 vaccine has brought even more attention and support to the technology.

Although this pandemic has now brought to light the Tesla and CureVac partnership, a joint patent application for the bioprinter was originally filed in 2018. Published in January of this year, the invention is descriptively titled “Bioreactor for in vitro transcription of RNA” and awarded internationally. Patent publication No. WO-2020/002598. The Context section of the app provides a little more information about the technology, its potential and why Tesla-style automation really makes a difference in what is possible:

A critical step in the production of RNA is the generation of an appropriate DNA template, which on an industrial scale is a major cost factor … The production of RNA requires a high degree of manual manipulation in a regulated laboratory by GMPs executed by well-trained technical staff. As a result, currently established manufacturing processes are time consuming, expensive and require a lot of laboratory space and laboratory equipment.

Credit: Tesla Grohmann Automation GmbH / CureVac SG / WIPO

Essentially, automating much of the manufacturing process would improve speed and reduce human interaction errors, as is the case with Tesla’s automated car manufacturing. Unlike large-scale automotive production, this bioprinter would however be much smaller. With staff requirements reduced and equipment requirements reduced to a single machine, portability comes into play.

… An acceleration of RNA manufacturing would be very beneficial and of major importance for public health, particularly in the context of pandemic scenarios. Another advantage in this context would be the production of RNA therapy in the region of the epidemic, which would however require a portable RNA production apparatus.

It is unclear which parts of the invention were specifically Tesla’s contribution aside from Musk’s indication that his company would manufacture the machines.

Overall, as stated in the CureVac press release, The RNA Printer ™ will be able to produce enough personalized mRNA for more than 100,000 doses of vaccine in a few weeks and at the outbreak site. The same machine would be flexible enough to be used for a wide variety of pathogens. In particular, CureVac was recently authorized for human phase I trials of its mRNA vaccine for COVID-19.

Musk’s interest in biotechnology is well known to those who follow his many projects and endeavors, particularly in terms of artificial intelligence regarding human-computer interfaces via Neuralink. However, this more traditional philanthropic involvement is certainly welcome in a world turned upside down by a pandemic.



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