COVID-19 proved that mRNA vaccines can work. Now, researchers are applying the technology to other diseases.
More than half of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Many of them received an mRNA vaccine that was developed by Pfizer or Moderna.
“mRNA is a blueprint to tell your cells what protein to make,” Dr. Scott Joy, an internal medicine specialist and Chief Medical Officer for HCA Healthcare Physician Services group, said.
“It’s either a protein that builds the cells, it’s a protein that fights an infection, or it’s a protein that has some other role in your body,” he added.
Though the COVID vaccines are new, research on mRNA and mRNA-based vaccines has been happening for decades.
“It’s interesting to look at the data from the late 90s from when the mRNA vaccines were being studied. The issue was not behind the basic science of why an mRNA vaccine would be effective, it was really how do you create a vehicle to get it into the cell to allow it to do what it needs to do. And that's what the last 20 years have really been about,” Dr. Joy said.
He said this technology can be applied to more than just COVID.
“We’re dedicating hundreds of employees, both in the U.S. and in Europe, to working on mRNA as one of the foundations for new vaccines,” Dr. Michael Greenberg, the vice president and medical head of Sanofi Pasteur North America, said. The company has been developing vaccines for decades.
“mRNA vaccines have been some of the ones that have gotten a lot of attention the past couple years because of their success that have been really shown during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Greenberg said.
Their efforts with mRNA started before the pandemic.
“We are the first ever to create, to start a clinical trial for seasonal flu vaccine using mRNA and so far the results are very promising,” he said.
The mRNA vaccines can be used to prevent illness in multiple ways.
“The idea was, can we develop a vaccine which is...not just focusing on one pathogen,” Dr. Gunjan Arora, a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine, said.
Arora is part of a team working on an mRNA vaccine for Lyme disease – a tick-borne illness caused by a specific bacteria.
“The idea is if he can develop a technology where we can deliver multiple candidate antigens, can we stop ticks from feeding and eventually that would block the Lyme disease in humans,” he said.
Essentially, the vaccine would target antigens found in tick saliva, preventing it from feeding on people and reducing transmission.
Researchers say the advancement of mRNA COVID vaccines shows a lot of potential for mRNA use.
“Acceptability of any new technology requires a breakthrough, a validation process. Which I think COVID-19 has done in this case,” Arora said.
“With the success of these out of the gate, we're pretty excited about future opportunities as well,” Joy said.