The technology behind the mRNA vaccines, which Moderna and BioNTech-Pfizer have designed to combat COVID-19, is giving us some hopeful news in the field of biomedicine.
First, BioNTech, the German company collaborating with Pfizer on one of the COVID-19 vaccines, has announced human trials for cancer vaccines using mRNA or messenger RNA technology. Moderna, meanwhile, has presented preclinical data on a 3-in-1 respiratory vaccine: in addition to protecting against COVID-19, it would also protect against influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a very common virus that causes mild cold-like symptoms.
Changing the rules of the game
The pandemic has been a boost for science and medical research and, particularly, for messenger RNA technology. This technology, used in Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, may soon be a game-changer for many other diseases.
This is made possible by the versatility of mRNA platforms, which are faster and easier to use than those underlying the protein-based manufacturing of traditional vaccines. And while it is still premature to make any kind of prediction, some, like science journalist Derek Thompson, suggest that mRNA technology could do what the Cold War did for the microchip. Or that in just twenty years, society will change in the same way that antibiotics changed in the 20th century.
The mRNA vaccines are a new type of vaccine that protects against infectious diseases, but unlike the traditional ones, to awaken the immune response, they do not inject the attenuated or inactivated germ into our organisms. Instead, mRNA vaccines teach our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response within our bodies. This immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from infection if the real virus enters our bodies. In some way, then, these vaccines teach that they use our body’s code to make its defenses.
Thus, mRNA vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. They also do not affect our DNA or interact with it in any way. The mRNA never enters the cell nucleus, which is where our DNA is. The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA shortly after it has finished using its instructions.
The end of respiratory viruses
Moderna, encouraged by the success of its COVID-19 vaccine, recently began phase 1/2 trials of its mRNA-based injection for seasonal flu, targeting four different strains. It has finally announced positive preclinical data for a single injection combining the vaccines against COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza. That is, they have managed to combine 6 mRNAs against 3 different respiratory viruses in a single vaccine: COVID-19 booster + RSV booster + flu booster.
The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common virus that causes mild symptoms similar to those of cold but it is dangerous in infants. Ribavirin is the only antiviral drug currently licensed for the treatment of RSV in children, although its use remains controversial. Seasonal flu kills more than half a million people a year. And the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, responsible for the COVID-19 disease, is advancing throughout the planet, adding more than 4.6 million deaths (in the United States alone, one in every 500 people has already died from this cause ).
So Moderna’s positive preclinical data, showing that they have successfully combined mRNAs against the current COVID variant, respiratory syncytial virus, and four flu strains in a single injection, is more than hopeful news for humanity.
Combining different vaccines is not something weird and novel. Babies receive MMR vaccines that mix measles, mumps, and rubella. They also receive DPT vaccinations for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus, while the annual flu shot is a mixture of four different strains of the flu virus.
However, current flu vaccines only offer about 40% to 60% efficacy, something that could change for the better thanks to mRNA technology. Additionally, influenza is a perfect candidate for this technology, because while viruses change rapidly, mRNA vaccines can develop very rapidly, meaning that manufacturers can rapidly alter their vaccines if the annual prediction of the strain is likely to circulate in the following season it turns out to be incorrect. Another advantage of mRNA vaccines is their ability to combine different antigens to protect against multiple viruses. The versatility and speed of mRNA technology, then, are unparalleled.
Thus, the mRNA platform would potentially make it possible to manufacture vaccines against everything from infectious diseases to heart disease and even cancer.