Under the deal, VaxEquity, a startup founded by Imperial vaccinologist Robin Shattock, could receive up to $195 million if certain milestones are met, in addition to royalties on approved drugs and equity investment from AstraZeneca and life sciences investor Morningside Ventures.
AstraZeneca already produces an adenoviral vector COVID-19 vaccine, and emphasised the potential of the self-amplifying RNA (saRNA) technology in novel therapeutic programmes beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
"This collaboration with VaxEquity adds a promising new platform to our drug discovery toolbox," said AstraZeneca research chief Mene Pangalos.
The technology works in a similar way to the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
However, a self-amplifying RNA vaccine not only encodes the instructions for the host cell to make a coronavirus protein, but makes lots of copies of the RNA containing those instructions, meaning doses can be smaller and cheaper.
"It's a bit like having a manufacturing facility, and instead of having one copy of the recipe, you have multiple copies that you can hand round to multiple production lines within the cell to produce more protein," Imperial's Shattock told Reuters. "So that's why it has that opportunity to use lower doses."
Imperial's COVID-19 vaccine is being retooled to produce a more consistent immune response with an eye on future coronavirus variants.
AstraZeneca, under the deal, has the option to collaborate on 26 drug targets for use against other therapeutic areas like cancers and rare genetic diseases.
"We believe self-amplifying RNA, once optimised, will allow us to target novel pathways not amenable to traditional drug discovery across our therapy areas of interest," Pangalos said.
U.S. companies Gritstone bio and Arcturus also are developing saRNA COVID-19 vaccines.
Shattock said safety data had been encouraging from initial trials of its COVID-19 vaccine, released in July ahead of peer review, and that Phase I results of its refined vaccine would be ready early next year.
"The reason we were slower was because we were coming from an academic setting," he said. "If we had this relationship (with AstraZeneca) at the beginning of 2020, we might have been faster."
(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Additional reporting by Christine Soares; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
By Alistair Smout