Using mRNA technology to combat Covid-19 set the stage for a new way of creating vaccines for other diseases such as Zika, dengue, influenza, and rabies. People are even talking about the possibility of finding a universal vaccine for any type of flu.
Traditional vaccines work by injecting weakened or inactivated versions of pathogens and the body learns to combat the bacteria or virus. However, RNA vaccines use ribonucleic acid that teaches our cells to produce a protein or a part of a protein that stimulates the immune system to spring to our defense. So, when a pathogen enters the body, it already knows how to defend itself.
According to an article published in the journal of the Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology, the advantages of this type of immunization are that RNA is a noninfectious molecule that is produced rapidly at scale and it does not use embryonic eggs or cell cultures that alter the vaccine’s results.
“mRNA vaccines meet most of these requirements, having demonstrated the capacity to protect animals from different influenza strains, although these data need to be transferred to humans,” concludes Jordi Reina in the article published in May.
mRNA cancer vaccines
Cancer is another of the diseases that these vaccines are attempting to combat. According to the United States National Cancer Institute, this disease was already being looked at even before the start of the pandemic.
Although the government has not approved any vaccines for this disease, clinical studies on different types of cancer show that they improve the immune response.
One of the companies developing this type of vaccine is BioNTech, precisely one of those that managed to produce a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in under a year.
In fact, they are also developing the technology to combat other infectious diseases: malaria, tuberculosis, and the herpes virus, which are in Phase 1; as well as another for influenza that is in Phase 3, which means it is one step away from being commercialized.
Meanwhile, the Moderna company is in Phase 1 of an mRNA vaccine for the Zika virus, which promises to be safe in the future.
The story behind the technology
This positive result from RNA vaccines stems from –at least– 62 years of research, which began with the discovery of the RNA molecule in 1961.
According to an article published in the journal Nature in March 2022, mice were the first recipients of an RNA injection in 1990.
In March 2013, a new variant of bird flu was also detected in China. At that time, a team from the Novartis company sequenced the virus and managed to inject this type of vaccine into a mouse in under a month, although they were unable to test it on humans. By 2018, the first therapeutic drug based on RNA interference already existed, called Onpattro.
Researchers say that RNA vaccines are important for three reasons: their shorter development time, their simpler production process, and their capacity to induce strong immune responses.