A bigger RNA role for Rochester

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GreenLight Biosciences will make enzymes and RNA for agricultural applications at Eastman Business Park. (Photos courtesy of GreenLight Biosciences)

Rochester will step up its role in the RNA revolution with GreenLight Biosciences’ $16.6 million manufacturing plant at Eastman Business Park. The Massachusetts-based biotechnology company will make enzymes and ribonucleic acid for agricultural applications, including the protection of honeybees.

The 17,000-square-foot plant, which was inaugurated today, draws on GreenLight’s technology, a clean, cell-free RNA production process. The company aims to provide the agriculture industry with targeted biocontrols that attack destructive pests without any impact to crops. Until now, GreenLight says the cost and scale of RNA production has impeded its use in agriculture.

“GreenLight has developed a new way to produce commercial quantities of RNA at low cost for multiple applications,” says Carole Cobb, chief operating officer. “GreenLight’s research know-how and production process allows us to address some of the challenges that formerly hindered RNA’s application in agriculture.”

Cobb, who is no stranger to Rochester, is known for her experience in fermentation-based commercial manufacturing, including process development, worldwide manufacturing and global supply chain management. A former senior vice president of global supply at Genencor International, Cobb continued in that role after Genencor was acquired by Danisco. 

The team at GreenLight has been able to demonstrate specificity in the company’s agricultural offerings. RNA targets crop pests like the Varroa destructor mite, which demolishes beehives, and the Colorado potato beetle without affecting the surrounding biodiversity.  

GreenLight’s Rochester manufacturing facility has an installed capacity at 500 kilogram per year, with ready expansion to 1,000 kg. The site and utility infrastructure support a further expansion of RNA production up to 100 metric tons per year, officials say.

GreenLight announced its plans for the site last year, committing to up to 30 new jobs here. It was slated to receive up to $600,000 in support from Empire State Development through the Excelsior Jobs Program in exchange for those jobs. At that time, Cobb noted that the Eastman Business Park was an attractive option for the company because of the access to scientific talent and manufacturing experts, in addition to the resources at the park.

GreenLight was founded in 2008 to find ways to support biodiversity, protect bees and other pollinators, treat rare diseases, and develop vaccines. Based in Medford, Mass., with research and development operations in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the company went public through a special purpose acquisition company in a deal that valued GreenLight at $1.2 billion. The transaction was expected to generate proceeds to fund $282 million in operations to develop, scale and commercialize RNA offerings for agricultural and human health markets.

For human health, GreenLight is developing an mRNA manufacturing platform aimed at providing mRNA-based therapeutics at scale and an appropriate price for global needs, the company says. Its lead vaccine candidates include those for influenza and COVID-19. GreenLight is also addressing other medical needs.

Researchers around the world, like those at GreenLight and at the University of Rochester Medical Center, have been actively involved in testing and developing RNA-based solutions over decades. The COVID pandemic accelerated those efforts, leading pharmaceutical companies to see the potential in messenger RNA delivery mechanisms for vaccines. GreenLight proposes “A Blueprint to Vaccinate the World,” which states a fact the world has witnessed already—“if we’re not fast enough to prevent major mutations, we’ll need to vaccinate the world all over again to tackle new strains, which will mean rapidly making and distributing billions of doses again.”

To meet this and other challenges, GreenLight suggests making enough vaccines—15 to 20 billion doses (with wastage) in its estimation—for every person in the world, and to do it quickly before a serious mutation renders a vaccine ineffective. However, there isn’t enough manufacturing capacity, there are delays in supply chains, and the need to continue working on next generation vaccines keeps growing.

GreenLight proposes a network of RNA factories, a collaborative approach toward meeting supply demand and continuing research for new vaccines. Though the Rochester plant is geared toward the agricultural market, it is one step toward a plant that could produce RNA at scale.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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