Messenger RNA (mRNA) is the way that our body encodes information to synthesize a protein. Research into using mRNA for vaccination goes back to the 1990s, demonstrating that liposome-encapsulated RNA could stimulate T-cells in vivo and elicit an immune response against a pathogen. A breakthrough occurred in 2005 when Karikó and Weissman published their paper that used modified nucleosides to get mRNA inside cells. With the COVID-19 pandemic, research has been accelerated, resulting in successful mRNA vaccines approved for use by the FDA, paving the way to change the future of medicine.
How do traditional vaccines work?
Traditional vaccines involve manufacturing antigens that are on a weakened or harmless form of the virus. These antigens are created outside the body and injected into your arm. Once the antigens are present, your immune system will begin making antibodies to break down the antigens, similar to what happens with natural infections. You will then gain immunity to future infections.
How do mRNA vaccines work?
The main difference with an mRNA vaccine is the antigens used to trigger the immune response are produced within the body. An mRNA vaccine will have a synthetically created mRNA fragment that contains information for the immune cells of your body to make antigens. Once the antigens are produced, your body’s immune system recognizes it as a foreign entity and begins an immune response. From here, the process is much like traditional vaccines, with your immune system producing antibodies and gaining immunity. The mRNA fragment is also temporary and will be destroyed by your immune system.
Applications beyond the COVID-19 Vaccine
Before the coronavirus pandemic, mRNA research was underway for influenza, herpes, and HIV vaccines. The use of mRNA can also go beyond vaccines. Research is currently being done using mRNA as a safer and more cost-effective method for gene therapy to treat illnesses such as sickle cell disease. mRNA would be used to deliver a healthy copy of a broken gene that the body can use to create proteins. mRNA has also shown potential in cancer therapy through the delivery of tumour antigen information.
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