The mRNA technology used for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines has been hailed as a medical breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19.
The vaccines ???? The high efficacy against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, their safety in clinical trials, and how quickly they were produced has caused a lot of excitement in the scientific community.
And while the technology is hardly new? It’s been decades. The pandemic accelerated its development thanks to increased interest and funding, as well as accelerated regulatory approvals.
With mRNA COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widespread, scientists are already looking at the technology’s potential to prevent and treat other deadly diseases such as cancer, malaria, influenza, HIV, and Parkinson’s disease, and the list goes on.
Conventional vaccines, such as the seasonal flu vaccination, inject the patient with weakened or inactivated parts of the actual pathogen or virus, thereby exposing the patient’s immune system to it. In this way, the immune system can generate antibodies that can recognize and fight off the same pathogen if it encounters it again.
On the other hand, with mRNA vaccines, no actual virus is injected into the individual. Instead, these types of vaccines teach the body’s cells how to make the antibodies necessary to trigger an immune response.
Messenger ribonucleic acids (mRNA) are genetic instructions that tell the body’s cells which proteins to make. These proteins are required for numerous cellular functions in the body, including energy and immune defenses.
For the COVID-19 vaccines, the scientists developed synthetic mRNA in a laboratory that instructs the cells to produce the characteristic spike protein from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The immune system then targets and destroys these foreign spike proteins. If the body encounters the real virus at a later point in time, the body’s own immune system is already ready to fight it off again.
While the mRNA-based vaccines have been shown to be effective in fighting off the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, some scientists are optimistic that the technology doesn’t have to stop there.
In fact, research has already begun to find other uses for mRNA technology to prevent some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Dr. Van Karlyle Morris, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is part of a team of researchers testing mRNA technology to prevent colon cancer from returning.
For the Phase 2 clinical trials supported by BioNTech, Morris said they are using mRNA technology to treat cancer that may still be present in the body.
« With COVID vaccines we are trying to prevent something that is not there, » he said during a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca on Wednesday. « In the context of cancer, we are actually using mRNA technology to treat something that may still be there. »
To do this, the researchers are tracking high-risk patients with stage 2 or stage 3 colon cancer who have had a tumor removed. The tissue from the tumor is sent to a specialized laboratory where they examine the genetic mutations in the tumor that promote cancer growth and identify up to 20 of the most common mutations.
The team then creates a personalized mRNA vaccine based on the specific genetic mutations of the tumor and given to the patient.
« When treating these patients with an mRNA vaccine that teaches the immune system to look for up to 20 mutations, » Morris said. « And if it can, if the immune system can recognize these mutations, it can find the cancer cells that have those mutations in them and hopefully kill them and eradicate them. »
Because mRNA vaccines can be made so quickly, Morris says they can create personalized cancer vaccines that target specific genetic mutations and manipulate them over time.
« The ability to personalize and the flexibility of the technology to adapt to a particular cancer-related patient’s specific needs or to adapt quickly to infectious disease needs like you did. » I think in COVID-19 it’s something that has been unprecedented in medicine, and it has implications for how we really deal with all kinds of diseases. he said.
Dr. Richard Bucala, professor of medicine, pathology, epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Medicine, is also working on its own RNA-based vaccine to fight malaria.
Malaria, the second leading killer of infectious diseases worldwide, is caused by a parasite that mosquitoes transmit when they bite, said Bucala.
The RNA vaccine that Bucala and his team are developing targets a specific parasite protein called MIF, which kills the immune system’s memory cells, preventing it from remembering the parasite.
This particular vaccine differs slightly from mRNA vaccines in that it uses self-amplifying RNA (saRNA), which Bucala refers to as the « next generation ». of RNA vaccines.
In contrast to mRNA vaccines such as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, which require a large amount of mRNA to be injected in advance, saRNA only needs a small amount to start with because it is supposed to replicate itself in the body. Cells.
« You inject it once and that RNA is replicated for six to eight weeks, » Bucala explained during a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca last week. « It makes it a lot cheaper, a lot easier to produce, a lot easier to deliver, especially in the developing world. »
This last point is important because Bucala said it was very difficult to develop vaccines for developing countries where malaria is most prevalent.
While Bucala and his colleagues have been working on this vaccine for years, Bucala said the success of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 has made it easier for other research like his to spark interest and funding.
« The unforeseen benefit of the COVID-19 tragedy is that RNA is now somehow accepted and opens up opportunities for this vaccination approach to other diseases like malaria. » Said Bucala.
In addition to malaria and cancer, scientists say there is potential for RNA technology to be used in vaccines against seasonal flu, HIV, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis (MS).
Both Pfizer and Moderna have announced that they will use this technology to develop a vaccine against influenza. Moderna recently announced that it is developing mRNA vaccine candidates for seasonal flu, HIV and the Nipah virus following the success of its COVID-19 vaccine.
BioNTech, who worked with Pfizer on the COVID-19 vaccine, is already conducting mouse tests to see how mRNA technology can be used to treat autoimmune diseases such as MS.
Morris said for autoimmune diseases where the immune system attacks the body, the thought is that the mRNA could teach the immune system to calm down. or be less reactive to the cells of the body.
« It’s very, very early on in this technology, of course, but the potential that affects patients with autoimmune diseases is extraordinary in my opinion. » Morris said.
While much of this research has not yet reached the human clinical trial stage, it is hoped that there will be fewer barriers now that mRNA vaccines are widely adopted around the world.
Bucala said the emergencies of the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to try these new vaccines.
Because it’s trial and error, you don’t know you have failed until you are at the very end of human clinical trials. And now that RNA technology is cheaper, simpler, and regulators are more on board, I think it opens up business opportunities. Said Bucala. “It’s very good news.”
This December 14, 2020 file photo shows a vial containing the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut (AP Photo / Jessica Hill, file) .
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