Sarah Perry and Shelly Peyton, both of chemical engineering, are co-principal investigators of a UMass research team that will spend the next three years developing a process that can deliver the quantity and quality of messenger RNA (mRNA) demanded by a new class of medicines, including the COVID vaccines, faster, cheaper and more effectively than any other method.
The project, led by Professor of Chemistry Craig Martin, will be joining Wellcome’s R3 program, which seeks to create a global network of “biofoundaries” capable of producing high quality, low-cost mRNA, increasing global access to these new therapies, wherever they’re needed.
Martin, whose lab has been studying RNA for more than 30 years, has developed an approach to making RNA that employs a “flow reactor.” This method results in much larger quantities of much purer RNA. It is also scalable and can provide small amounts of RNA that could, for instance, address a particular person’s cancer, as well as the enormous amounts needed for something like a COVID vaccine.
While the Martin and Perry labs have already developed an initial smaller-scale version of their process, Perry and Peyton will help refine the process and be responsible for helping to scale the initial to industrial uses.
“The microfluidic aspects of this technology rely critically on their small size,” Perry says. “Therefore, we will not ‘scale up’ so much as ‘scale out,’ creating many parallel reactors that can operate simultaneously to produce sufficient product for commercial use.”
This scaling out, says Peyton, relies on a series of porous scaffolds, which Perry will engineer. Peyton will incorporate these porous scaffolds into the reactors. “Without both,” she says, “such an ambitious goal of continuous production of long mRNAs would not be possible.”
The work is part of the larger Wellcome Foundation’s Leap Health Breakthrough Network, a web of more than 70 world-class institutions, non-profits and commercial entities representing a network of over 650,000 scientists and engineers across six continents and is supported by a major grant.
Early support for this work was provided by UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which combines deep and interdisciplinary expertise from 29 departments on the UMass Amherst campus to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit human health and well-being.
A version of this article was originally published by the UMass Amherst Office of News and Media Relations.