Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the previously little-known science behind mRNA technology has gone mainstream – and now experts believe more shots using the approach for a variety of diseases are in the cards.
For example, the ability of mRNA vaccines to boost production of a key protein in skin health could make them a valuable tool to help prevent skin cancer, researchers at Oregon State University said Thursday.
And last week, officials with Pfizer-BioNTech, the partnership behind one of the two mRNA vaccines that protect against Covid-19, announced they will use the approach to develop a vaccine against shingles.
Chances are most people in the United States probably never heard of mRNA vaccines before the Covid-19 pandemic started in March 2020.
However, scientists have been working with the approach for more than two decades, and many believe it could hold the key to producing vaccines to combat some of the world’s most challenging diseases, from cancer and HIV to the flu and malaria, experts said.
“The mRNA Covid-19 vaccines greatly exceeded expectations and seemed to perform best of all the vaccine types tested, which gives reason to believe that mRNA vaccines against other diseases could be as effective,” Stephen S. Morse, an expert in emerging infectious diseases, said.
“Another important reason is simplicity – the process is about the same for all mRNA vaccines, so it’s fairly easy to switch as new mRNA vaccines are developed,” said Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City.
RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is essential for all life.
Like DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, which essentially determines the genetic makeup of all living organisms, RNA is used by cells for a variety of tasks, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.
One of these functions is messenger RNA, or mRNA, which carries instructions from DNA to cells to make proteins that aid in everything from digestion to stimulating the body’s immune response, the institute said.
The Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech contain mRNA that is designed to train cells in the human body to make specific proteins, called antibodies, that help the immune system fight the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.