On 16 March 2020, the first ‘mRNA’ vaccine designed to fend off the SARS-CoV-2 virus was injected into Jennifer Haller in Seattle. This date marked the beginning of human clinical trials to test the safety of a new COVID-19 vaccine from the biotechnology company Moderna.
The shot was administered only 66 days after the sequence of the virus’s genome was released to the world, an unprecedented turnaround time that many people hope will foreshadow the future of vaccine development and international collaboration. In December 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization for mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, making them the first mRNA vaccines available to the public.
In the cell, the main job of RNA is to convert the information stored in DNA – our genetic blueprint – into proteins. This task is carried out by a specific type of RNA called “messenger” RNA, or mRNA.
Deciphering the cellular role of mRNA was the result of decades of research during the mid-20th century, performed by multiple international research teams. In the 1990’s, scientists figured out how to introduce custom mRNA into cells, directing the cells to make specific proteins. This discovery would eventually pave the way for developing mRNA vaccines.
Vaccines work by training our bodies to recognize invading viruses. Traditional vaccines perform this task by introducing a dead, inactive, or modified portion of a virus into our body so that our immune system can learn to recognize and fight this foreign invader.
In the lab, scientists create synthetic mRNA containing the spike protein sequence. This encoded information is delivered through the jab, and it instructs some of our cells to manufacture spike proteins. The spike proteins trigger our immune cells to assemble antibodies capable of recognizing them. If the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus behind COVID-19, infects a vaccinated person, then the trained antibodies sound an alarm, leading to an immune response to fend off the infection.
In theory, the underlying technology behind mRNA vaccines is adaptable, allowing for quick updates as new viral mutations (variants) evolve or whole new viruses are discovered. Since mRNA vaccines are based on sequences of viral proteins, making a new vaccine could simply involve changing the mRNA sequence if you know what protein you want to make.
Along with saving an estimated 10 million lives worldwide in less than 20 years,through the vaccination of nearly 700 million children, – Gavi has most recently ensured a life-saving vaccine for Ebola.
The Ebola vaccine is the result of years of energy and commitment from Merck; the generosity of Canada’s federal government; leadership by WHO; strong support to test the vaccine from both NGOs such as MSF and the countries affected by the West Africa outbreak; and the rapid response and dedication of the DRC Minister of Health. Without these efforts, it is unlikely this vaccine would be available for several years, if at all.
Prior to developing mRNA vaccines for infectious diseases, researchers and pharmaceutical companies contemplated mRNA’s potential to treat cancer. Over 20 mRNA vaccines in clinical trials are in oncology, testing mRNA as a personalized treatment tool. Ideally, doctors would identify the unique mutations present in a patient’s cancer cells and introduce those letters into an mRNA vaccine, teaching a patient’s immune system to more effectively attack cancer cells.
Promise exists for using mRNA to treat several other diseases as well. What is certain is that mRNA is poised to impact public health and precision medicine. The extent of this impact relies heavily on accessibility. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted multistakeholder collaboration on strengthening global infrastructure, fostering public-private partnerships, and ensuring last mile delivery. The global community’s work to address current gaps and barriers in access to mRNA vaccines will provide a foundation for continued initiatives needed to ensure access to future mRNA treatments.
This content was originally published here.