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The Next RNA Breakthrough? Maybe Bending Strands Into Circles

Investors flock to biotech startup Orna Therapeutics on the promise of low-cost treatment.

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Illustration: Fatchurofi Muhammad for Bloomberg Businessweek

Less than two years ago, most people had never heard of mRNA. Then came the pandemic, and the scientific term became a household word. Now, Moderna Inc. and BioNTech SE are on the verge of selling more messenger RNA vaccines than any other drug product in the world.

The wild success of mRNA vaccines has prompted venture capitalists to pour huge sums into startups focusing on transforming straight RNA strands into circles. This simple-sounding but technically difficult feat would promise an alternative to the relatively short-lived power of mRNA, which sends instructions to cells to make specific proteins, such as the coronavirus spike for Covid‑19 vaccines. Delivering those messages via circles may produce a more stable, longer-lasting signal, potentially treating cancer, autoimmune disorders, and genetic diseases. Scientists at Orna Therapeutics Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., say they’ve figured out a way to do that by programming RNA with genetic code that instructs a line to split into several strands and then repair itself in the shape of a circle.