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Vaccines have been an important tool in the fight against COVID-19. But it wasn't just the traditional sort of vaccine that came to help - it was a different kind of vaccine made from messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA. While the vaccines for COVID-19 were the first to successfully use this technology, mRNA is not new. Scientists have been studying mRNA in medicine for decades, and this technology may serve as a valuable tool in the treatment toolbox in the coming years.
How Vaccines Work
To best appreciate how helpful mRNA technology can be in the fight against infection, it's important to first understand how vaccines work. Ultimately, the goal is to build immunity - an immune response that helps protect us against disease. Vaccines build immunity by teaching our bodies how to fight off invading bacteria or viruses. Traditional vaccines do this by introducing a weakened form of the potential invader into the body, while mRNA vaccines make pieces of bacteria or viruses internally by taking advantage of how our cells work naturally. mRNA vaccines themselves do not contain any of the actual virus or bacteria.
Our cells are like a microscopic kitchen that cooks up an elaborate menu of thousands of different proteins, which form our entire bodies and help keep us alive. An mRNA vaccine delivers instructions that act like a special recipe, directing the kitchen to temporarily add your meal - or in this case, a small protein from part of the virus or bacteria - to the menu. The immune system then reacts to that new protein by creating a defense if and when the real invader comes along. mRNA vaccines do not alter a person's DNA.
The Potential of mRNA
The instructions found in the mRNA vaccine's recipe can be edited, meaning mRNA can be changed to help defend against different diseases. When creating a vaccine, the mRNA platform may offer advantages over traditional methods, including flexibility, speed, and timing.
- Flexibility: Since you only need the genetic instructions to make an mRNA vaccine, it's possible to swiftly adapt to match a new virus or mutation. As new strains of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 or seasonal flu continue to emerge or shift, scientists can potentially 'plug' a new code into an mRNA vaccine to rapidly begin testing and development.1
- Speed: When it comes to preventing life-threatening illness, speed is of the essence. Some traditional vaccines can take more than six months to make (or manufacture), because they have to be grown in living cells. That's why the strains for flu vaccines rolled out each September are chosen in February. But mRNA vaccines can be made much more quickly, while maintaining the rigorous safety testing that comes with all new vaccines. In fact, it's estimated that mRNA vaccines can be manufactured 10 times faster than traditional vaccines made from live, weakened, or killed viruses.2
- Timing: By requiring shorter manufacturing and development leads, the mRNA code may also better match the virus strain that you're most likely to encounter in your everyday life, such as the particular strains of seasonal flu circulating in a given year. This could improve how well the vaccine works, or how effective it is.3,4 Where traditional vaccines require a lead time of six months or more to mass produce, mRNA vaccines can be manufactured in as little as three months from the time the new strain is selected.
Ultimately, mRNA vaccine technology may help us better respond to future epidemics and pandemics as well as now-widespread diseases that may require regular strain updates, like the seasonal flu and COVID-19. Scientists and doctors around the world are excited about the potential future applications of mRNA.
1 Pardi et al. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2018 April ; 17(4): 261-279. doi:10.1038/nrd.2017.243
2 Kis Z, Kontoravdi C, Dey AK, Shattock R, Shah N. Rapid development and deployment of high-volume vaccines for pandemic response. Journal Of Advanced Manufacturing and Processing. 2020;2(3):e10060.
3 Pecetta S, Rappuoli R. mRNA, the beginning of a new influenza vaccine game. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2022;119(50):e2217533119.
4 Khoury DS, Docken SS, Subbarao K, Kent SJ, Davenport MP, Cromer D. Predicting the efficacy of variant-modified COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Nature Medicine. 2023 Mar;29(3):574-8.