In the race to address the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have worked tirelessly the past year to produce a vaccine. Operation Warp Speed has worked with a handful of organizations to bring a vaccine to the public, and some have used a technology called messenger RNA (mRNA). While researchers have worked with mRNA for years, the COVID-19 vaccinations that rely on this technology are the first to contain mRNA for public use. This article aims to break down the basics of mRNA, its role in COVID-19 vaccine development, and other ways it is used in research.
To understand what mRNA does, it’s important to understand basic biology. All cells contain DNA genomes which encompass all the genes needed to sustain life. A gene provides the specific instructions to make a protein, and the protein carries out a particular function or job to keep the cell running properly.
Consider a genome as a thick set of instructions, like a standard operating procedure (SOP) manual. If only one set of instructions is needed, it wouldn’t make sense to give someone the entire SOP manual for a single page reference. Instead, you might use an intermediate or a “photo copied page” to transfer only the exact information needed. In this scenario, mRNA acts as the photo copied page of the genetic sequence in the complete “manual.” If researchers are simply trying to make a single protein, using an intermediary – such as mRNA – provides specific instructions for the given protein, making it easier than working with the complete volumes of information in your genome.
mRNA’s Role in COVID-19
COVID-19 vaccine development would not be where it is without mRNA technology. When looking at a coronavirus, the outside crown-like appearance is made up of spike proteins.
These proteins are easily identifiable for the immune system to recognize and attack. Infection begins when a coronavirus binds to the host cell, inserting its genetic makeup into the cell via the spike protein so that it can reproduce and spread. A virus is unable to reproduce on its own, which gives researchers the opportunity to make antibodies against the spike protein. If cells have antibodies that bind and interfere with these spike proteins, the neutralizing antibody can prevent infection of the disease.
As mRNA is introduced to a host cell, the mRNA machinery makes the viral spike protein, and presents it to the immune system to trigger a response.
During this process, there is no actual infectious material introduced into the body. This approach has proven to be a safe option for many existing vaccines – mRNA technology is just a much quicker way to do this. For the current coronavirus outbreak, mRNA technology has been favorable because it is fast to implement, safe, and researchers are easily able to mass produce it.
How Is mRNA Used in Research?
Beyond vaccine development, mRNA can be used for a number of disease indications. Used as a therapeutic, mRNA delivers genetic material into a cell to make the required protein encoded in the mRNA. With this technology, we can create vaccines against cancer by fighting proteins normally expressed on cancerous cells, then harvesting immune systems to fight the cancer for us. For a more sophisticated and targeted approach, researchers use an immunotherapy. mRNA allows researchers the ability to treat:
- Severe allergies
- Rare diseases when the body lacks the ability to make a certain protein
- Enzyme replacement therapy by providing mRNA for a protein’s need
While the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are the first of their kind, researchers have studied mRNA’s potential therapeutic uses for years. These vaccines are only the beginning of ways mRNA technology can revolutionize the way we treat disease and improve human health.
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