The COVID 19 pandemic was harmful in every respect except, perhaps, one: it accelerated the development of highly effective anti-viral vaccines based on mRNA technology. Here, UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor Kevin Dalby discusses potential benefits from recent mRNA research in the fight against a wide range of other diseases.
RNA is an acronym for a complex organic substance present in living cells, namely ribonucleic acid. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is a genetic material that contains instructions for making proteins. Proteins carry out nearly every function in the human body. In the protein synthesis process, mRNA carries genetic information to the cell, instructing its protein-producing mechanisms.
Over the past twenty years, scientists have been increasingly interested in RNA-based technologies to develop preventative and curative vaccines. Clinical trials have indicated that mRNA vaccines provide a safe and long-lasting immune response. There are remarkable advantages associated with mRNA vaccines. Some of these advantages include a low cost, fewer and less severe side effects, and a high efficacy rate. These factors contribute to the prevalence of mRNA vaccines in pre-clinical and clinical trials against various infectious diseases and cancers.
In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA enters a human cell and gives instructions to produce the “spike” proteins — the sharp bumps that protrude from the surface of the coronavirus. The body recognizes the spike protein as an invader, so it produces antibodies to protect against it. These antibodies are then ready to destroy the actual virus should it be encountered.
Vaccines used to combat measles-mumps-rubella contain attenuated, or weakened, forms of an organism that causes a disease. They are called live attenuated vaccines. The weakened organism acts as an antigen and stimulates the body to create antibodies to respond to the organism.
Unlike live attenuated vaccines, mRNA vaccines effectively instruct the body to build a protein that imitates the dangerous virus. The vaccine induces a strong neutralizing antibody response creating protection from viral replication. mRNA vaccines do not contain the offending organism itself.
Vaccination is the most successful approach to disease prevention and control medical science has to offer. Future vaccines hold the potential to be used against cancer as well as against infectious diseases. Due to the dramatic results of RNA-based vaccine studies, many mRNA vaccines have entered clinical trials. mRNA vaccines can now be synthetically produced through a cell-free enzymatic transcription reaction and might prove much safer than other vaccines. They are considered a promising vaccine platform for many diseases.
Currently, nearly all vaccines need to be transported and stored in an uninterrupted cold-chain process. In many poor rural areas of tropical countries, this can be problematic. Because this temperature-controlled requirement inhibits the widespread distribution of vaccines in some areas, interest in the development of thermostable vaccines is gaining momentum. Synthetic mRNA has shown great promise in the area of thermostable vaccines. This could lead to groundbreaking advances in the vaccination of populations in some parts of the world.
About Kevin Dalby
Kevin Dalby is a UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby’s efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.