The world’s first mRNA vaccines - the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna - have made it in record time from the laboratory into people’s arms. Their high efficiency and the speed with which the vaccines were created are set to transform how we develop vaccines in the future.
Once researchers have set up the mRNA manufacturing technology, they can potentially produce mRNA against any target, not just COVID-19.
Messenger ribonucleic acid (or mRNA for short) is a type of genetic material that tells your body how to make proteins. The two mRNA vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, deliver fragments of this mRNA into your cells. Once inside, your body uses instructions in the mRNA to make SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins. So when you encounter the virus’ spike proteins again, your body’s immune system will already have a head start in how to handle it.
So after COVID-19, which mRNA vaccines are researchers working on next? Here are three worth knowing about.
Flu Vaccine: Currently, we need to formulate new versions of the flu vaccine each year to protect us from the strains the World Health Organization predicts will be circulating in flu season. This is a constant race to monitor how the virus evolves and how it spreads in real time and, generally speaking, is only about 50 percent successful.
So, the holy grail is a universal flu vaccine. This would protect against all strains of the virus (not just what the WHO predicts) and so wouldn’t need to be updated each year. The same researchers who pioneered mRNA vaccines are now working on a universal flu vaccine.
Malaria Vaccine: Malaria arises through infection with the single-celled parasite Plasmodium falciparum, delivered when mosquitoes bite. There is currently no vaccine for it. However, US researchers working with pharmaceutical company GSK have filed a patent for an mRNA vaccine against malaria, after promising results.
This malaria mRNA vaccine is an example of a self-amplifying mRNA vaccine. This means very small amounts of mRNA need to be made, packaged and delivered, as the mRNA will make more copies of itself once inside our cells. This is the next generation of mRNA vaccines after the “standard” mRNA vaccines seen so far against COVID-19.
Cancer Vaccine: We already have vaccines that prevent infection with viruses that cause cancer. But the flexibility of mRNA vaccines lets us think more broadly about tackling cancers not caused by viruses. Some types of tumours have antigens or proteins not found in normal cells. If we could train our immune systems to identify these tumour-associated antigens then our immune cells could kill the cancer.
BioNTech is developing one such mRNA vaccine that shows promise for people with advanced melanoma. CureVac has developed one for a specific type of lung cancer, with results from early clinical trials.
Then there’s the promise of personalised anti-cancer mRNA vaccines. If we could design an individualised vaccine specific to each patient’s tumour then we could train their immune system to fight their own individual cancer. Several research groups and companies are working on this.
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