mRNA Vaccines: Creation and Potential for Future Disease Control

mRNA vaccines are an incredibly important innovation in disease mitigation with an equally incredible long history.

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The COVID-19 vaccine is the first in a revolutionary line of vaccines that promise to advance disease prevention. While traditional vaccines use dead or deactivated viruses to effectively train the body to recognize and effectively respond to antigens (foreign particles that induce an immune response generally associated with pathogens), the COVID vaccine, which is an mRNA vaccine, teaches cells to produce the deactivated antigen themselves. These mRNA vaccines are significantly cheaper and more effective than most conventional vaccines.

Despite their potential, mRNA vaccines were too complicated of a technology to develop until recently. mRNA was discovered in 1960, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 vaccines that an mRNA vaccine became commercially available. While an influenza mRNA vaccine was tested on mice in the 1990s, the first human test of an mRNA vaccine didn’t come until 2013.

This delay in development is due to a few major technological problems. The first and most major is the incredibly fast degradation of artificial mRNA. The presence of RNases (enzymes that denature/destroy RNA) is near ubiquitous inside the body and mRNA itself triggers an immune response that causes the artificial mRNA to be destroyed. This problem was solved by nanotechnology—scientists created a lipid capsule, or fatty envelope, surrounding the artificial mRNA, protecting it until it could enter the cell. This was a very precise creation that required time and advancements in multiple fields. It is also quite difficult to mass-manufacture mRNA vaccines, though this capability has significantly improved since they became a commercially proven technology.

The first mRNA vaccine developed with this fatty envelope technology was for Ebola in 2019. However, the Ebola vaccine was never sold commercially, mostly due to a lack of a market. Tragically, Ebola was most prevalent in places where distributing the vaccine was considered “not profitable” enough. It’s a sad reflection on how health care is so commercialized that the first example of a revolutionary technology couldn’t be utilized due to lack of a financial incentive.

Currently, the most relevant mRNA vaccines are those designed for COVID. These generally hover around an effectiveness of roughly 85 percent, which is better than the vast majority of modern traditional vaccines. For context, the flu vaccine has an effectiveness of only 40 to 60 percent. The COVID vaccines were also developed quickly—vaccines were created two years after the initial spread of the novel disease. This makes them a great proof of concept for this technology with such a long creation process.

Now that this technology has been successfully put into practice, a wide variety of mRNA vaccines are being researched for diseases such as HIV, cancer, and genetic disorders. The infrastructure needed to mass produce them is also being improved so that when the next pandemic hits, we can design and manufacture a large number of mRNA vaccines more quickly.

mRNA vaccines are a major innovation that was difficult to attain. In addition to their lower costs and heightened tailor-ability, they’re also much safer than traditional vaccines because they don’t require inactivation and therefore can’t be contaminated by toxic agents. The mRNA vaccine is a very exciting development with the potential to enhance the quality of life of the human race.