Believe it or not, the concept of inoculating people against diseases has been around since as early as the year 1000. George Washington even famously used the tactic to protect his vulnerable Continental Army from the ravages of smallpox. And by the late 1700s, virologist Edward Jenner used cowpox to create the world’s first standardized vaccine.
But for the most part, the way that scientists design vaccines have remained the same ever since. In most cases, a weakened version of a given pathogen is cultured in a laboratory setting and then is used as the basis for a mass-produced vaccine. The trouble is, that process is slow, difficult, and often very expensive.
That’s why the rapid development and mass-production of two different vaccines to halt the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic came as such a shock to people all around the world. From beginning to end, it was an effort that took approximately six months. Previously, the fastest vaccine ever developed was the mumps vaccine, which took four years to produce.
The secret to the shocking speed was that the two new vaccines relied on a whole new approach to development. They used lab-created messenger RNA (mRNA) to pass instructions to our bodies on how to defend themselves against the Coronavirus. They were the first approved vaccines to use the technology, and they’re paving the way for what scientists believe will be a revolution in future vaccine and therapeutic development.
What is mRNA, anyway?
To understand why the development of these mRNA-based vaccines is such a big deal, you must first understand what role mRNA plays in the human body. In short, it is the genetic material that gives our cells the instructions they need to produce various proteins necessary to make our bodies work. Critically, it can be used to make our bodies synthesize almost anything – not just compounds native to ourselves.
And because our immune systems are built to respond to foreign substances and eliminate them, passing instructions to build a foreign protein turns out to be an excellent way to prompt a strong immune response. Plus, it’s an approach that takes place entirely within the patient’s body, which makes it far less likely to result in adverse side effects or complex interactions with the delivery medium.
The technology’s potential
The new mRNA technology is promising for a variety of applications beyond yearly antiviral vaccinations. Scientists are already exploring its use as a postsurgical cancer treatment, too. In the current trials, researchers are using standard genotyping assays made to study DNA in a luminescence plate reader to identify genetic mutations found in cell samples taken from cancer patients. They can use the results to rapid-prototype a customized, per-patient mRNA vaccine that would teach the patient’s body to find and eliminate any remaining cancer cells in their body.
Scientists also believe that the speed with which mRNA vaccines can be created makes them a unique tool to combat fast-evolving infectious agents. For example, mRNA might make it possible to create a new generation of influenza vaccinations that could all but eliminate the disease in humans. And it could be a far safer way to address deadly pathogens like Ebola, which has defied attempts at treatment development simply because it is so dangerous to study. The same holds true for diseases like HIV and Zika.
Although the swift success of the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines has opened some eyes to the technology, it won’t be opening the floodgates for similar vaccines right away. This is because the shortened development timeframe for those vaccines was only possible because of the severity of the pandemic they were intended to treat. Under normal circumstances, lengthier efficacy and safety trials would have been required before the treatments came to market.
Experts don’t expect that such exceptions will happen again anytime soon. This means that although an mRNA treatment might only take two days to produce, it will still take years before they end up getting through the necessary regulatory hurdles it takes to gain approval. That reality means it’s still going to be quite a while until applications like the aforementioned postsurgical cancer treatment can go mainstream. And even then, it’s likely that regulators will have to create whole new approval processes to accommodate the time-sensitive nature of such applications.
The bottom line
For now, it seems that mRNA technology will continue to mature behind the scenes, the success of the twin COVID-19 vaccines notwithstanding. It’s clear that it’s a promising and useful technology. But until new safety and efficacy procedures evolve to match the speed with which scientists can apply the technology, most of the benefits will remain theoretical. But when that day comes – and it will – doctors will gain access to a brand-new arsenal in the war to keep us healthier and living longer. Let’s hope that it happens as soon as possible.