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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Jabbour

Messenger RNA & COVID-19 Vaccine: A New Technology Transforming Medicine

Coronavirus has devastated more than 2 million global citizens, and with U.S COVID-19 deaths surpassing 500,000, a number greater than deaths in 2019 from stroke, flu, pneumonia, and Alzheimer's combined. With two vaccines available today, many Americans rely on them to get us closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. Pfizer, one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, created the world's first authorized COVID-19 vaccine. Their contender, Moderna Therapeutics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a 10-year-old biotech company worth billions of dollars, has also hoped to make a history of its own.

These two companies are different in many ways. Pfizer is a 171-year-old Fortune 500 powerhouse, while Moderna has never even delivered a drug to the market before the COVID-19 vaccine. However, what sets these companies apart is not nearly as significant as what they share: Both use a new genetic technology in their vaccines that has held significant promise. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, both Moderna and Pfizer staked everything on messenger RNA (mRNA), or genetic material that cells translate to form proteins. mRNA is the breakthrough scientists needed, paving the way to widespread vaccination. Moderna has been studying and working on this technology for many years. Pfizer collaborated with BioNTech, a small German biotech company, to take advantage of their mRNA technology.

This is a fundamentally unique approach to vaccine development and disease treatment. Traditional vaccines utilize weakened or inactive forms of a virus or parts of the shells of viruses that train the body's immune system. When the body comes in contact with the virus, cells will be trained to defeat it. The new mRNA vaccines use a short-lived molecule that transfers copies of genes to guide the cells in making the proteins. These genes come directly from the coronavirus and include the instructions to produce spike, a crown-like protein that will enter the body's cells. These proteins do not infect a person with the virus but instead prompt a potent immune response proven to be 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 infection.

Beyond possibly ending this catastrophic pandemic, this vaccine advancement illustrates how mRNA presents a new approach to suppress or treat a broad spectrum of diseases. Scientists believe effective vaccines can be developed using the technology of temporarily delivering instructions into cells against herpes, malaria, flu, and future coronavirus variants. They also see a future beyond vaccines: mRNA may provide cheap gene fixes for cancer, sickle-cell disease, and possibly HIV.

Moderna recently announced their new programs aimed to design HIV, seasonal influenza, and Nipah virus vaccines using mRNA, further expanding their development portfolio of diseases, viruses, and cancer. "The uniquely challenging year of 2020 for all of society proved to be an extraordinary proof-of-concept period for Moderna," Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, said in a press release. "Even as we have shown that our mRNA-based vaccine can prevent COVID-19, this has encouraged us to pursue more-ambitious development programs within our prophylactic vaccines modality."

For instance, the current flu vaccines are only mildly efficacious due to the rapid mutation of influenza viruses, which forces scientists to essentially make an educated guess, months in advance, what strains will be spreading in the upcoming flu season. Using mRNA vaccines could make this process faster and more precise. Moderna has four flu vaccine candidates to cover seasonal flu viruses, as recommended by the World Health Organization, and phase I clinical trials are expected to begin this year.

"We have been working on this for over 20 years," said Drew Weissman, a researcher who developed the technology behind the shots. "We always knew RNA would be a significant therapeutic tool."

"We have been working on this for over 20 years," said Drew Weissman, a researcher who developed the technology behind the shots. "We always knew RNA would be a significant therapeutic tool." mRNA medicines utilize normal biological processes to their advantage in order to form proteins while generating an expected therapeutic effect. This allows for the prospective treatment of the vast array of diseases that cannot currently be tackled using present technologies.

The COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer are extraordinarily effective and contain the technology that can change the medical world. "It's not that the vaccine is old news, but it was obvious they were going to work." Messenger RNA, Weissman says, "has an incredible future."


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