Moderna partners with IBM to speed up mRNA vaccine development

Steven Loeb · April 20, 2023 · Short URL:

The company will gain access to IBM's quantum and artificial intelligence technology

The COVID-19 vaccine was the fastest ever created, taking less than 12 months from identifying SARS-CoV-2 to discovering an immune response against it to developing and testing the vaccine for it. The previous fastest vaccine, the mumps vaccine in the 1960s, took about four years to develop.

Moderna, one of the key manufacturers of the COVID vaccine, wants to make the process go even faster, and so it announced a partnership with IBM on Thursday, in which the company will "explore next generation technologies," such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, to "advance and accelerate mRNA research and science."

The COVID vaccine from Moderna, as well as Pfizer, is based on the messenger RNA, or mRNA, platform. As explained by the CDC, mRNA is genetic material that tells your body how to make proteins. The mRNA in the vaccine teaches your cells how to make copies of the spike protein so if you are then exposed to the real virus, your body will recognize it and know how to fight it off.

As per this agreement, Moderna scientists will get access to IBM's technology, including its quantum computing systems, as well as expertise in order to Moderna explore life sciences use-cases powered by quantum technologies. Moderna will also participate in the IBM Quantum Accelerator program and the IBM Quantum Network. 

In addition, they will develop AI models for mRNA medicine design, applying MoLFormer, which is described as "an AI foundation model that can help scientists predict a molecule's properties, and could help them understand the characteristics of potential mRNA medicines."

Moderna will be to use MoLFormer to help optimize lipid nanoparticles, which encapsulate and protect mRNA as it travels within the body, and mRNA, which acts as instructions to cells in order to fight disease. Under this initiative, Moderna and IBM will combine formulation discovery with generative AI to design mRNA medicines with optimal safety and performance.

As the COVID pandemic wanes, Moderna is looking to expand mRNA technology to creating vaccines for other diseases, notably cancer and heart disease; Dr Paul Burton, the chief medical officer at Moderna, has said he believes the company will be able to offer treatments for “all sorts of disease areas” in as little as five years. 

"Since our inception, we have always strived to be at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, leveraging innovations to deliver the greatest possible impact to people through mRNA medicines," Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a statement.

"We are excited to partner with IBM to develop novel AI models to advance mRNA science, prepare ourselves for the era of quantum computing, and ready our business for these game-changing technologies. We are aiming for breakthrough advances with quantum computing, so we are investing now in building a quantum-ready workforce, to be fully prepared to harness the power of this technology."

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