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Don’t shoot the messenger: the trend toward mRNA vaccines

23rd July 2021 - 0 comments

It was not long ago that uttering the term ‘mRNA’ would be met with blank stares among non-science-y folk. But, with COVID-19 as its publicity agent, mRNA has recently become a household name.

Considering the first approved COVID-19 vaccine is founded on mRNA technology, it is clear that it represents a way to deliver new vaccines faster than ever before. And this hasn’t gone unnoticed by leading biotechnology companies. For example, Sanofi recently announced plans to invest nearly half a billion dollars on mRNA vaccine research – per year.

It begs the question, why did it take a pandemic for mRNA vaccines to make a name for themselves? And what makes them such a big deal?

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While mRNA vaccines have only recently crept into the general population’s lingo, its story actually began over three decades ago. Katalin Karikó – now the Senior Vice President at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals – was one of the first to recognize the potential of mRNA to treat disease.

mRNA provides a direct message to your cells – letting them know how and when to make relevant proteins. For example, after (over) indulging on the cheese platter at your friend’s dinner party, the lactose in your body needs to be broken down. Providing the instructions to make enzymes that breakdown lactose after a particularly gluttonous Friday night is the job of mRNA.

Karikó hypothesized that if you could design and manufacture synthetic mRNA, you could tell your cells to make any protein you desire – including proteins needed for vaccination.

Considered an eccentric idea at first, Karikó and her collaborators went on to overcome one of the biggest hurdles in mRNA-based medicine. They discovered that by swapping out the building blocks of RNA – nucleosides – with modified, synthetic versions, they could simultaneously increase protein production and significantly suppress the body’s natural immune response1.  

A slew of research quickly followed to develop the idea and work towards making mRNA vaccines a reality. For example, to get the better of degradative enzymes (known as RNases) that destroy mRNA before it can even reach its target, scientists provided the mRNA with protective cloaks. Often composed of lipid nanoparticles, this protective shield ensures the mRNA arrives at its intended destination fully intact.

To name just a few more, stabilizing mechanisms involving capping enzymes that increase protein translation have been developed and improvements to purification methods have resulted in decreased immune activation2.

With the pieces of the mRNA vaccine puzzle spread out across the world, piecing together the full picture was going to take some time – until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

It takes a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into a tailspin, and scientists needed a way to produce a vaccine – fast. With conventional vaccines relying on time-consuming cell cultures and industrial fermentation, researchers and biotech companies turned to mRNA.

Since mRNA can be developed in silico, its manufacturing process is relatively simple, rapid, and cost-effective. Other benefits include the high potency and safety profiles of mRNA vaccines relative to conventional killed and live attenuated virus vaccines.

Figure 1. Select timeline of the events leading up to the roll out of Moderna’s Covid-19/SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine in the UK


Back in 2013, Novartis developed an mRNA vaccine candidate in just 8 days – but RNA manufacturing flaws brought proceedings to a sudden stop. This time around, there would be no such road blocks (Figure 1). Just a few days after the identification of SARS-CoV-2 was announced, China shared its first full genome sequence. A mere two days after that, Moderna had their mRNA vaccine designed. And, within a handful of months, Moderna had administered the first dose of it in a Phase I trial. Previously, no new vaccine had been developed in less than four years.

Looking forward

COVID-19 has brought mRNA technology to the world’s attention – and of course plays a significant role in curbing the spread of SARS-CoV2. Moreover, what has been made abundantly clear is the promise mRNA vaccines hold for other infectious diseases.

Indeed, companies like Moderna are building on their COVID-19 success – developing vaccines for the seasonal flu market and other infectious diseases. Moderna recently announced promising results from a phase II trial of its candidate vaccine for cytomegalovirus – one of the primary causes of birth defects in babies.

Historically, it has taken 10-15 years to get a vaccine to market. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has projected us into a new era of vaccine development, where progress can be made at a lightning pace. Now that we know it can be done, what’s next for mRNA technology?

We’ll ask the question, is mRNA technology our silver bullet? in an upcoming blog – so keep an eye out for more info! Interested in starting a blog? Here at Alto, our dedicated life science writing team can help you stay at the forefront of research – and translate it into effective, accurate, and compelling content. From white papers and technical notes to press releases and web copy, our PhD qualified team have extensive experience in crafting high-quality content that speaks to your target audience. Find out more about our PR and technical writing services here.

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