TThe last few months have brought a number of scientific terms to public attention. We have to digest R (reproduction number of viruses) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction method of testing). And now there mrna. The latest one is strongly featured in the latest news reports because of the spectacular results of two new MRNA vaccines against coronavirus. It stands for “Messenger Ribonucleic Acid”, a company familiar enough if you studied biology at O-level or GCSE, but otherwise hardly a household name. Even in the field of vaccine research, if you had said recently like 10 years ago that you could protect people from infections by injecting them with MRNA, you would have provoked some puzzled views.
Essentially, mRNA is a molecule used by living cells to make the gene sequences in DNA into the proteins that are the blocks of all their fundamental structures. A segment of DNA is copied (“transcribed”) into a piece of mRNA, which in turn becomes “read” by the cell’s tools for synthesizing proteins. In the case of a MRNA vaccine, the MRNA of the virus is injected into the muscle, and our own cells then read it and synthesize the viral protein. The immune system reacts to these proteins – which do not cause disease – just as if they were caused throughout the virus. This generates a protective response that, we hope, lasts for some time. It’s so beautifully simple that it almost seems like science fiction. But last week we learned that it is true.
It is extraordinary that observations originally made in cell cultures in a petri dish have been translated into real life. At the same time, it is not entirely surprising that the first two Covid-19 vaccines to announce Phase 3 results are MRNA-based. They were first removed from the blocks because as soon as the genetic code of SARS-COV-2 became known (it was published by the Chinese in January 2020), companies working on this technology were able to start producing the MRNA. Of the virus. . Making conventional vaccines takes much longer.
It is possible that the impressive performance of the new vaccines will eclipse the others that are currently in development. It depends on how effective the alternative approaches are – and the results will start thick and fast. However, there is the question of whether MRNA could represent the future of all vaccines. If a coronavirus vaccine can be produced this fast and this well with MRNA, why not use this approach across the board? In short: will MRNA become the default platform for vaccines from now on? This would be a huge breakthrough in disease prevention.
We just have to wait and see if it happens. Even if we assume that the full detail of the results, when they come through, confirm the headline figures, there are things that only time can reveal. How long will protection last, especially in those who are at greatest risk? Are the vaccines effective enough not only to keep the recipients ill when exposed, but also to keep them infected altogether – or, otherwise, to reduce the transmission of virus to others?
The other key yardstick by which we judge any new vaccine technology is safety. Unlike drugs, which are given to treat people who are ill, vaccines are offered to everyone. Side effects are only milder if they are pretty gentle and short-lived – most people will accept a second of sharp pain, followed by a soft upper arm and feel a little off-color for a day or two, but that’s all . Serious illness caused by vaccines should preferably be none, or at least woefully rare.
On the face, MRNA should be safe. After all, it is found in abundance in all cells in our bodies. It is also a very fragile molecule. It falls very easily apart and is rapidly broken down by proteins designed to do this, which seem to be everywhere. Working with MRNA in the laboratory is a nightmare because it is disappearing. On this basis, it should not hang in the body for very long after injected.
The fact that MRNA is genetic material may lead to think there is some risk of genetic side effects. In human cells, but DNA is transcribed into RNA constantly within RNA, the opposite may not happen – RNA cannot make it back into DNA and change our genes. (Actually making DNA from RNA – so-called reverse transcription – is something that only a certain type of virus, like HIV, can do). Ultimately though, confidence in the safety of vaccines is something that comes from experience, and this will be the same with MRNA. The reassuring thing is that they have been tested for safety in tens of thousands of study subjects. In a short time, this will become millions, and – assuming that no unexpected problems appear – the feeling of reassurance will grow.
Whether mRNA is now becoming the preferred way to create new vaccines, it is clear that a global disaster on the scale of the pandemic spurs innovation at a much faster rate. This is not only the consequence of all the resources and funding available to those with solutions that could usually be met with more skepticism; It is also driven by the remarkable things that humans can achieve when they push themselves through circumstances and give a common purpose. Although we as Lioness individual heroes and leaders, scientific advances like MRNA vaccines are always the product of the collaborative efforts of many people with different skills and backgrounds. Bringing vaccines to the clinic requires a large number of brave and altruistic volunteers to participate in clinical trials.
Stepping back, one fact stands out. At the beginning of November, we still do not know whether or not No Vaccine could help us overcome this terrible disease. When the month is nearing its close, we’re sure they can. Myrna vaccines are but in the history books, which in itself is something to wonder about. Human ingenuity, invention and sheer hard work mean that we are finally on the path of disaster.