Recent announcements from COVID stage three vaccine trials have captured the world’s attention, primarily due to efficacy rates well in excess of the most optimistic hopes. While the preliminary results open the door toward a return to normalcy, the bigger story is what these trials mean for our medical future. Following are three reasons the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 may be seen positively as a turning point for the development of drug therapies.
Successful Application of Messenger RNA (mRNA)
Traditional vaccines are made up of weakened or inactive versions of the disease-causing organism, or the proteins it produces. These doses are introduced into the body to incite the immune system into mounting a defensive response.
At least two vaccine trials reporting initial success relied on mRNA which works differently. Recall from chemistry class that RNA is the middleman between our cell DNA and the proteins that make up our cellular structure. mRNA is a subtype of RNA that carries a portion of the DNA code, like a recipe, to other parts of the cell for processing. By creating and introducing the right synthetic mRNA recipe, scientists believed the body could be tricked into building virus infection proteins on its own. The number of proteins would be enough to initiate a defensive response, but too few to assemble and form a virus. At least in clinical trials the theory seems to be working.
Creation of More Potent Vaccines
Our immune system is made up of two parts: the defenses with which we are born (innate), and those we develop when we come into contact with pathogens (acquired). Traditional vaccines focus on training the acquired defenses. Creating virus proteins using synthetic mRNA triggers the acquired immune system, but can trigger the innate immune system as well, providing an extra layer of defense. Because you are not introducing the whole virus into the body, we avoid the problem of the virus mounting its own self-defense in a feedback loop between the virus and immune system. Eliminating the back-and-forth leaves the immune system to devote its full energy to creating a response to the viral proteins without interference from the virus.
Vaccination on a Larger Scale
Traditional vaccines take 1-2 years to scale production to levels necessary to achieve broad immunization. Again, mRNA is different. Instead of manufacturing an inactive virus in a facility, it is the mRNA sequences that are manufactured. After delivery, a person’s cells act as a protein factory when they follow the mRNA recipes. No virus is needed, dramatically cutting the time to immunization.
Vaccines are only the latest application of mRNA in drug therapy but they may be the first to reach scientific success. Research has been carried out on many applications: fighting cancer through the specific targeting of tumors, correcting genetic faults in our bodies such as hemophilia patients who lack one of the genes needed to make blood coagulation proteins, and helping heart attack victims regenerate damaged heart tissue. The evolving success of mRNA-based COVID vaccines could lead to faster drug development and better therapeutic outcomes. Over the long-term, this would benefit patients first, but also drug companies and the investors who support them as well.