Monday, May 27, 2024

Life-saving mRNA vaccines. Here are 5 things you should know about them

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — Two pioneering scientists who developed the technology for life-saving Covid-19 vaccines have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

Dr. Katelyn Carrico and Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania achieved this feat by harnessing the power of messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, a genetic material.

Their discovery opened a new chapter in medicine, paving the way for new vaccines for other infectious diseases including influenza and treatments for non-infectious diseases such as cancer.

Here are 5 things you need to know about Carrico and Weisman’s game-changing research on mRNA vaccines.

How does messenger RNA work?

mRNA is a form of DNA that tells cells what to do based on the information in the DNA.

Unlike DNA, which serves as the instruction manual for life found in every cell, mRNA is a temporary genetic code that can make a protein or repair damage.

Researchers often compare it to a cookbook: DNA is a thick recipe book, while RNA is a handwritten copy of an individual recipe that is discarded after use.

Scientists have known about mRNA for a long time, but it was previously thought that it was not stable enough to have value as a therapeutic tool.

What did the researchers find?

Carrico and Weisman’s major breakthrough was finding a way for our bodies to convert nucleotides, the building blocks of RNA, to produce the immune system.

Robin Shattock, professor of mucosal inflammation and immunology at Imperial College London, said the “groundbreaking work” the two did in understanding how RNA is formed was crucial to the success of a highly effective mRNA vaccine against the Covid-19 virus.

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“Their early work on using modified nucleotides, the building blocks of RNA, to evade activation of the innate immune system will be a key factor in the successful use of future RNA vaccines and new RNA-based drugs,” Shattuck added.

How do mRNA vaccines differ from other vaccines?
Many vaccines use weakened or dead versions of the viruses they target. It’s not enough to make a person sick, but it’s enough for the immune system to respond so that the body produces antibodies if it encounters the real virus.

These are referred to as viral vector vaccines.

Another related technology used in protein subunit vaccines uses purified fragments of the virus to stimulate the immune response.

However, these types of vaccines can take a long time to develop and are difficult to replace quickly.
mRNA vaccine technology does not rely on a modified version of the virus to generate an immune response, but instead uses modified mRNA to stimulate the body’s cells to produce proteins that train the immune system to protect the body against a specific disease.

Challenges the team overcame
Kariko’s interest in the therapeutic potential of mRNA began when he enrolled in a graduate program in Hungary, and his interest never waned despite the many obstacles, job losses, uncertainties and trans-Atlantic moves he faced.

His belief that it could be used to fight disease drew skepticism, and he was often rejected when applying for grants.

Carrico, now an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, met Weisman by chance in 1997.

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The Nobel Prize Committee said that Weizmann’s background in immunology and Carrico’s expertise in RNA biochemistry complemented each other.
Their pioneering study was published in 2005, 15 years before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Power goes beyond fighting the coronavirus
The emergence of mRNA vaccine technology has offered safe and potent protection against Covid-19, but its proponents say this is just the beginning.

Early studies show that mRNA technology holds promise as a treatment for cancers including melanoma and pancreatic cancer, and is being studied for use in vaccines for seasonal influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and HIV.

Other aspects of current mRNA research include exploring a new way to treat autoimmune diseases.
mRNA technology is also being explored as a potential alternative to gene therapy for stubborn conditions such as sickle cell disease.

Nadia Barnett
Nadia Barnett
"Award-winning beer geek. Extreme coffeeaholic. Introvert. Avid travel specialist. Hipster-friendly communicator."

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