From Covid to cancer: High hopes for Nobel mRNA vaccines

The mRNA technology that supports vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna gained international recognition as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, and two scientists who were instrumental in its creation were awarded the Nobel Prize on Monday.

The work on “nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19” by Drew Weissman of the United States and Katalin Kariko of Hungary earned them the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

These vaccines are novel, but scientists have spent years trying to understand how to use messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid) to treat conditions ranging from cancer to AIDS and administer other vaccinations.

In the body, messenger RNA assists DNA in transmitting precise instructions to cells.

For the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, laboratory-produced mRNA instructs human cells to produce antigens, which are proteins resembling those in the Covid-19 virus.

These antigens teach the immune system how to combat the virus and destroy Covid if it gets inside the body.

After the cells produce these proteins, the body degrades and eliminates the mRNA instructions.

It is revolutionary to be able to communicate directly with cells; traditional vaccinations attempted to elicit an immune response by delivering a virus or antigen that had been neutralized into the body.

The first big breakthrough, in the late 1970s, was in using mRNA to make test-tube cells produce proteins.

A decade later, scientists were able to get the same results in mice, but mRNA still had two major drawbacks as a medical tool.

For one thing, cells in live animals resisted synthetic mRNA, provoking a dangerous immune response.

On top of that, mRNA molecules are fragile, making them difficult to deliver to the system without altering them.

In 2005, Kariko and Weissman of Penn State University published a groundbreaking study showing that a lipid or fat molecule envelope could safely deliver mRNA without negative effects.

The research caused a buzz in the pharmaceutical community and start-ups dedicated to mRNA therapies began to pop up around the world.

For diseases including the seasonal flu, rabies, and Zika as well as others that have remained immunization-resistant up to this point, such malaria and AIDS, researchers have worked on creating mRNA vaccines.

The use of specialized mRNA made from samples of the proteins found in cancer patients’ tumors to treat them personally has also begun.

This then triggers the immune system to target specific cancer cells.

“The mRNA platform is versatile,” University of Pennsylvania biochemist Norbert Pardi told AFP. “Any protein can be encoded as mRNA so there are many potential applications.”

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