It feels like we’re being bombarded more frequently with news about emerging viral threats. HIV, H1N1 Influenza, SARS and MERS have all caused global pandemics, and others like Ebola, Zika, Norovirus and Hantavirus caused notable health scares at the very least. Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 took headlines for the past three years. With each new outbreak, science and medicine look for better ways to protect the population from viral disease through vaccination.
What’s a Vaccine?
A vaccine’s primary goal is to train the body’s defenses to recognize and respond to a specific threat—a virus such as measles, polio or COVID-19 or bacteria like Pneumococcus and Diphtheria. Vaccines expose the immune system to a foreign substance or antigen that’s part of the invader to induce an immune response in the body. The body remembers how to mount an immune response to the antigen, so the body can successfully defend against serious illness the next time it’s present.
Until the recent COVID vaccines were developed, antigens used in vaccines were typically a protein component or an incomplete, inactivated or weakened form of the invader. Developing and purifying the components of these classic vaccines is very time-consuming. Since viruses cannot replicate, they rely on metabolic activity in the cells they invade to reproduce. This means living-host cells, such as chicken eggs, are needed to grow sufficient copies of a virus to create a vaccine.
Behind the COVID-19 Vaccine
The COVID-19 antigen used in current vaccines is based on the “spike” protein found on the exterior surface of the virus. This protein was selected because its structure doesn’t change dramatically over time, so immunity conferred through vaccination can be effective longer. While the principles of using a protein COVID antigen for immunization is consistent with older vaccines, the process of making the antigen has been revolutionized.
The new vaccine technology used in creating the first COVID-19 vaccines is based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). The role of mRNA is to carry the code to make proteins from the DNA genes in a cell’s nucleus to the cell’s cytoplasm, where the protein-making machinery reads the mRNA sequence and translates the codes into corresponding amino acid chains to make proteins.
The mRNA injected in the vaccine was engineered to code for the virus spike protein when it enters the cell of an individual getting vaccinated. The mRNA acts as a blueprint to instruct the cells in the body to “manufacture” multiple copies of the virus spike protein and lasts long enough to create a strong immune response. Our immune system learns to recognize the antigen, mount a defense and develop antibodies to guard against future infections. If the vaccinated person is confronted with the full virus in the future, the body recognizes the spike protein and attacks immediately, neutralizing the virus and preventing severe illness.
Past, Present, Future
Wow, how times have changed. I remember standing in line at my elementary school to get the polio vaccine on a sugar cube in 1959—wait, am I really that old!? This new technology eliminates the need to grow the virus in surrogate cells because the body makes the pure protein internally. And because the mRNA can be engineered to make only part of a protein, there’s no danger in transferring an active virus to the person getting vaccinated. Additionally, people allergic to eggs don’t have to worry about exposure to egg products that came as a byproduct of vaccine production.
Perhaps we have just scratched the surface of the potential for mRNA. With COVID vaccines, we’ve demonstrated that we can introduce mRNA into cells to make proteins that aren’t in our own genes. We’ve also shown that the immune system can identify these foreign proteins and create effective antibodies against them.
What other diseases might we be able to use this technology for? HIV, Lyme Disease, Influenza? Can we also use it to train the immune system to identify and attack cancer cells? Might we be able to use it to promote protein production to accelerate cell repair for damaged nerves or heart muscles?
We can already see a variety of new mRNA vaccines on the horizon for influenza, shingles, RSV and combinations for COVID and influenza. Recently, a team at Yale patented an RNA-based technology to vaccinate against one of the world’s most deadly diseases—malaria. Many studies are underway on the cancer front, researching mRNA technology in melanoma, colorectal, prostate, ovarian, head and neck cancers. Other studies are looking at personalized cancer vaccines.
Find a Trial. Support Clinical Research.
This National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM), we wanted to highlight the potential for enormous medical advancement with mRNA technology. At IMA Clinical Research, we’re working hard to bring new trials to patients in need. You can help us move this research forward by participating in one of our trials. Call us at 1-888-852-7656 or visit us online to hear about clinical trials near you.