Cloud-based technologies helped facilitate Moderna’s rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The company currently intends to improve on its infrastructure in order to advance disease prevention and treatment.
Components of artificial intelligence
The name “Moderna” is now internationally recognized. The COVID-19 vaccine transformed the firm into a biotech heavyweight. Unlike some of its competitors, Moderna has only been around for about a decade.
In 2010, when the firm appeared as a fledgling in the field, the company based its drug discovery and manufacturing processes around components of artificial intelligence. The biotech company depended on Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud within its digital landscape.
How was Moderna able to devise a vaccine along a truncated timeline?
Dave Johnson, Moderna’s VP of informatics, data science and AI, explained, “Moderna started working on our vaccine for the novel coronavirus the moment its sequence was released by the Chinese authorities”. He continued, “Just a few days later, we had finalised the sequence for mRNA vaccine, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, and started manufacturing right away.”
Advantages of artificial intelligence
Only 65 days after sequencing, the first clinical grade batch of vaccine was released. It was then immediately given to the first vaccine subject. “This is truly unprecedented for a process that normally takes many, many years,” said Johnson.
The firm managed to launch clinical studies quickly due to the programmable nature of mRNA and due to the digital landscape that the company had built for itself. “This platform is enabled by our digital infrastructure, which leverages workflow automation, data capture, and AI to accelerate processes and deliver insight to our scientists, and additionally, Moderna parallelises drug development processes that are typically staged sequentially,” stated Johnson.
At an early point in the development phase, the company began to roll out preclinical studies on the vaccine while simultaneously manufacturing. This enabled the company to move at a fast pace.
mRNA processing, digital infrastructure, and disrupting disease
According to the firm, mRNA represents an “information molecule”. While DNA represents long-term storage for genetic information, mRNA is the transporter of those instructions to the rhizomes in cells. Proteins then synthesize this information.
Says Johnson, “By creating your own synthetic mRNA, we can encode information for any protein we want from critical enzymes that might be malfunctioning in a rare disease, to an antigen from a virus to trigger an immune response, which creates a vaccine.”
Refining the digital landscape, disease development
Moderna was founded with the understanding that mRNA’s applications remain vast and varied. As a result, what may work in one instance could potentially be applied to countless other scenarios. The main distinction would lie in altering the information and coding it for a fresh use case.
Branches of artificial intelligence enabled the acceleration of research and development. AI also provides the company with “unprecedented scale”, says Johnson.
AWS Fargate hosts the company’s internally developed drug design studio. This enables researchers to create novel mRNA constructs. It also enables them to leverage AI algorithms, and to get the preclinical scale production line set up at an early stage.
”Behind the scenes, the drug design studio leverages numerous AI algorithms — we have algorithms that design mRNA and DNA sequences … we have algorithms that automate logistics decisions, we have algorithms that automate quality control steps, which saves countless hours of manual review, but it also improves quality of those analyses, because the algorithms can often detect things that are not apparent to human eyes.”
mRNA processing and application
Moderna’s algorithms are used for thousands of unique mRNA constructs. “We very purposely designed all this infrastructure that we think of as an AI factory, in order to rapidly deliver algorithms from concept to production, to enable our scientists to leverage the power of AI in their daily jobs,” stated Johnson.
Despite the fact that Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is currently the star in the spotlight, the company reports that mRNA processing and associated techniques have significant implications for other infectious disease targets. For example, there may be reason to use an mRNA vaccine in fighting cytomegalovirus.
The flexible and “programmable” nature of mRNA, Moderna’s digital landscape and the use of artificial intelligence could potentially “revolutionize the way diseases are treated,” says Johnson.
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