Business & Tech

Cambridge biotech firm Moderna wins Zika vaccine grant

FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2016, file photo of aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in a mosquito cage at a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia. Top U.S. officials are urging Puerto Rico on Wednesday, July 6, to strongly consider aerial spraying to prevent further spread of mosquito-borne Zika, saying as many as 50 pregnant women on the island are infected every day and warns it's only a matter of time before Puerto Rico sees babies born with microcephaly, a rare birth defect linked to Zika infections. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File)

Ricardo Mazalan/AP/file

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are known to carry the Zika virus.

Cambridge biotech firm Moderna Therapeutics Inc. has won an $8 million federal grant to accelerate its development of a vaccine for the Zika virus.

The award from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, will help fund initial human studies of a potential vaccine for the virus, according to a press release from the firm.

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If early trials succeed, the grant could swell to $125 million to support final testing and large-scale manufacturing — assuming Congress passes a bill to fund a coordinated US fight against Zika, for which there is currently no treatment.

Moderna’s vaccine project is the second such effort in Massachusetts to receive federal funding in recent days. Last week, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. announced it had received an initial contract of $19.8 million from BARDA to conduct its own early-stage trials of a potential Zika vaccine developed by a team in Cambridge.

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Moderna is already conducting animal testing on a potential vaccine for the virus, which can cause severe birth defects and began spreading at epidemic levels after an outbreak in Brazil last year. It hopes to file a so-called investigational new drug application with the Food and Drug Administration by the end of this year and is talking with regulators about how to speed up the usual 5- to 10-year development and approval process for new vaccines.

The company said its unique “messenger RNA” drug technology — which prompts a patient’s own cells to produce proteins and antibodies that fight disease — could allow it to develop and manufacture a drug more quickly than the other pharma and biotech firms scrambling to address the Zika crisis. Other companies in the hunt include giants GlaxoSmithKline PLC of the United Kingdom and Sanofi SA of France.

“We feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to advance our Zika mRNA vaccine as quickly as possible, and we are thankful to BARDA for its commitment to support and help expedite our development efforts,” said Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive. “We plan to initiate a Phase 1 study within the next several months.”

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Also on Wednesday, Moderna confirmed an earlier Globe report that it had raised a large new round of funding by selling equity in the privately held, 400-employee company. The firm said it had raised $474 million from large pharmaceutical companies and institutional investors.

The new funding includes $140 million from Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca PLC, which has a partnership with Moderna to work on drugs to treat cancer and other diseases.

Moderna is also collaborating on drug research with Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., Merck & Co., and Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.
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