Of the available coronavirus vaccines on the market in the US, two of them were developed using innovative new technology: synthetic mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid). This technology is relatively new to the public, especially in a vaccine.
For most vaccines up until now, an inactive form of the virus is injected into the body to provoke an immune system response. However, mRNA vaccines work differently. These vaccines deliver an engineered form of mRNA to our cells. The mRNA instructs the cell to manufacture proteins that provoke an immune response, and the immune system then begins to generate antibodies, which offer lasting defensive protection from the virus.
Even though mRNA vaccines are new to the public, the science behind mRNA technology has been around for a while. Since the early 1990s, researchers have been exploring the implications and possibility of using mRNA technology as an alternative to traditional vaccines.
mRNA technology has shown promise from its early days, but initially, researchers had some difficulty in securing funding. Additionally, it proved difficult to deliver mRNA into cells, and it tended to quickly be degraded by the body. But scientists overcame these difficulties, and by 2017, multiple human trials were already underway to test the efficacy of mRNA vaccines against influenza, rabies, Zika, and even HIV.
There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic did present an opportunity for new research into mRNA technology. The work that had already been done testing mRNA vaccines in human trials helped scientists and researchers develop vaccines for coronavirus at an absolutely blistering pace.
mRNA technology is an ideal method for quickly developing a vaccine during a pandemic. A genetic sequence from a virus can be inserted into the mRNA base, making it easier to create a new vaccine. This helped contribute to the speed with which Pfizer and Moderna were able to develop working mRNA vaccines—their vaccines debuted less than a year after scientists in China revealed the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.
Now that mRNA vaccines have seen a large-scale test on the world stage, researchers and pharmaceutical companies are eyeing the potential new vaccines that could be developed with this technology. We could see vaccines for HIV, rabies, hepatitis B, malaria, cystic fibrosis, and other diseases developed with mRNA. Researchers are even hopeful about several mRNA treatment options for various forms of cancer. The possibilities could be limitless.