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New Zealand: New RNA Technology Development Platform

The Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland will develop a plan for a government-funded Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) Development Platform. The funding is administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) under its Strategic Science Investment Fund.

The establishment of an RNA technology platform will capitalise on the opportunities initially presented by mRNA to build scientific expertise, capability, and self‐sufficiency in an end‐to‐end RNA technology platform. It will support the design and production of RNA therapeutics and vaccines, bring together the best cross‐disciplinary and cross‐institutional experts and teams, connect New Zealand researchers to relevant international efforts and developments, and further assist companies to deliver new RNA products and services.

The rapid development of RNA vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the significant impact of this emerging technology. Currently, this technology holds the potential to generate novel vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics that can enhance health outcomes for diseases like cancer and autoimmune disorders. Furthermore, there is potential for its application in animal health and agriculture. The University of Otago and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research will back the project.

According to a press release, the RNA Development Platform will increase capabilities across the country’s expanding biotechnology sector, from research and development to regulations and production. The Platform will enable researchers and businesses to transform innovative concepts and early-stage research into valuable products and services. It will also facilitate advancements in manufacturing, for instance, by designing novel delivery systems for RNA vaccines and advancing smaller-scale labs to be able to efficiently produce RNA therapeutics.

The two universities have an initial funding of $500,000 to develop a 7-year plan for the Platform under the co-host arrangement. Their proposal aims to bring together people, facilities, information, and knowledge to focus on various RNA research and innovation projects. Once the plan is approved, an additional investment of $69.5 million over seven years will be granted to finance research and innovation within the RNA Development Platform.

This major investment in New Zealand’s Research, Science, and Innovation (RSI) sector will go towards the national effort to build capability in areas such as vaccine resilience and, more broadly, the ability to respond to future health threats.

MBIE has outlined the projects that are fundable under the Platform Plan:

  • Research programmes with a primary focus or outcome related to the development, commercialisation, or deployment of RNA technology.
  • Research focused on developing emerging ideas that can be leveraged, with some scope for generating novel concepts.
  • Research aligned with current projects and supported by existing technological capabilities in the system, resulting in complementary research.
  • Collaborative programmes involving the best of New Zealand’s expertise, with strong connections to internationally recognised best-practice research.
  • A first point of contact for external parties, providing coordinated services across the Platform network.
  • Creating a pipeline of researchers that participate in mission-oriented research, including opportunities for early-career researchers/Maori and Pasifika.
  • Supporting the pipeline of RNA research and technology development capability.
  • Research programmes targeting inequities in the country and representing a diverse set of New Zealand’s communities.
  • Costs directly related to the research programme, and for connecting with industry, end-users, and communities for impact.

The Ministry has also stated that an Assessment Panel will be created to assess the draft and final Platform Plan to determine its suitability as a basis for investment. The composition of the panel will depend on the Platform’s specific priorities, and MBIE will inform the co-hosts of the exact panel makeup before the assessment. External advice may also be sought by MBIE during this evaluation process.

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