How mRNA Technology Could Revolutionize Other Vaccines

You may have heard the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines compared to a Snapchat for your immune system. That process — using mRNA technology — could completely change the way that other vaccines are developed in the future. Hopefully, the vaccine will help end the COVID-19 pandemic, but its legacy could also include creating vaccines for other viruses, from different flu strains to HIV. 

The coronavirus vaccines are the first vaccines that use mRNA technology — also known as messenger RNA. This is different than traditional vaccines, like those used for preventing polio, which use a weakened version of the virus itself to teach the body to respond and prevent the virus. Instead, mRNA essentially speaks to the immune system, giving instructions for creating antibodies against the virus (via Harvard Health Publishing). 

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines teach the body to produce a harmless spike protein based on the COVID-19 virus. Once created, the immune system then learns to destroy that protein, effectively teaching the body how to fight COVID-19 (via the Centers for Disease Control). This sounds simple, but it's revolutionary.

Other than the flu, what can mRNA vaccinate against?

The rapid gene sequencing of the COVID-19 virus, followed by the design of an mRNA vaccine and subsequent testing and approval, took only 11 months, but that accomplishment came after three decades of research into mRNA technology. And now that the creation process for mRNA has been better developed, the door has been opened for similar vaccines. 

"People have recognized the possible utility of mRNA for years, but COVID advanced this research really rapidly," Dr. Alexa Kimball, the chief executive officer of Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians, told Healthline

Because mRNA works by producing specific proteins, different strains of mRNA can be developed to not only vaccinate against viruses like influenza, it may even be able to target certain cancer cells or even create proteins to help those with diseases caused by missing proteins, like cystic fibrosis. "Every cancer is different because cancers are in large part derived from cellular mutations and mutations maybe are often very different from one tumor to another. Every person has their own tumor," Dr. John P. Cooke, a physician-scientist, told Healthline. But mRNA technology could be used to develop specific vaccines based on a person's tumor in order to teach the body to attack the tumor — or, as Cooke puts it, creating personalized cancer vaccines.