The Future of mRNA Technology
As mRNA technology promises to revolutionize future vaccines and treatments for various cancer forms and infectious diseases, investors have spotted the potential. Enormous amounts of money are currently flowing into synthetic biology, a field of research that approaches the body and natural systems almost as if they were computers.
Table of Contents
- What Is mRNA?
- Synthetic Biology and ‘Programmable’ Medicine
- mRNA and the COVID-19 Vaccine
- The Future of mRNA Technology
- If This Is Just the Beginning – What Will Come Next?
What Is mRNA?
mRNA in itself is not a new invention. It’s actually not an invention at all; it’s a molecule that evolved billions of years ago, which can be found in every cell of our bodies. Scientists believe RNA developed in the very earliest life forms, even before DNA existed.
mRNA is short for messenger RNA. Very simplified, the function of mRNA is to act as a messenger within the cells. It transmits information. And, as the messenger, mRNA serves as an important safety mechanism in the cell. It protects the cell from invaders trying to hijack the cellular machinery. Any RNA detected outside of the cell is immediately targeted and destroyed by enzymes known as RNases.
Synthetic Biology and ‘Programmable’ Medicine
One of the primary reasons mRNA is so transformative is that it’s based on synthetic, “programmable” biology. This means that the drugs using mRNA technology are based on what resembles a programming language. And when you have a “programmable” medicine, it means you can iterate and make changes to it much quicker. Both to develop new drugs and to adapt existing vaccines to virus mutations.
mRNA and the COVID-19 Vaccine
In 1796, the British physician Edward Jenner created the world’s first vaccine. It was a vaccine against smallpox. The method was to inject patients with pus derived from the blisters of a milkmaid who had contracted a virus biologically related to smallpox from cows. For the last 200 years, this method has been the basis for almost all vaccines: protection has been achieved by giving people a form of the virus itself and activating antibodies against it.
But in 2020, this changed. Today more than 80 million Americans have received a new type of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). A vaccination that is instead based on mRNA technology.
“The vaccine field has been forever transformed and forever advanced because of COVID-19,” says Dan Barouch, M.D., Ph.D., and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School in an AAMC article.
The Future of mRNA Technology
But while this technology may seem “new,” and some worry that it has been “rushed” because of the pandemic, researchers have actually been exploring the use of mRNA for more than 25 years in university labs around the world.
Scientists predict that the successful implementation represents the most radical leap in vaccine development since Jenner’s smallpox vaccine two centuries ago.
“This is just the beginning,” says John Cooke, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.
If This Is Just the Beginning – What Will Come Next?
John Cumbers is the founder of SynBioBeta, a network for entrepreneurs, engineers, and investors who are interested in synthetic biology. He believes the success of the COVID–19 vaccines marks the beginning of a whole new era in medical science.
“We are on the cusp of a revolution. We’re on the cusp of what some people are predicting is the next 100 years of biology, the century of biology,” he says in an interview in Marketplace.
Giants like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have long been predicting this development and the advancements that will take place in the intersection of computation and biology. And it does seem as if the possibility of adding programmability to biology is a definite game-changer.
Many researchers now see a future use for mRNA well beyond vaccines. This technology could, for example, enable cheap gene fixes for cancer, sickle-cell disease, and maybe even HIV. Other possible use cases may include preventing and treating viruses such as herpes, infant respiratory virus, and malaria.
Another project already being planned is to develop a “universal” flu vaccine or a “pan-corona” vaccine that would offer protection against thousands of variations in that category. That would make the world a lot more prepared when the next pandemic hits, because most researchers agree it is not a matter of if, but when. Drew Weissman is one researcher whose work with messenger RNA led to the successful development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
“You have to assume we’re going to have more. So instead of shutting down the world for a year while you make a new vaccine, we’ll have a vaccine ready to go,” Weissman says in MIT Technology Review.
The successful implementation of mRNA technology in vaccines against COVD-19 has opened the door to unprecedented possibilities. The ability to develop vaccines in a controlled, synthetic environment instead of using the actual virus to create them marks an important milestone in medical history.
With this new technology, it is possible to develop “programmable” vaccines that can quickly be altered and adapted for different and changing needs. Many researchers consider this to be the beginning of a whole new era, the “era of synthetic biology.”
Billions of dollars are now flowing into this field as an increasing number of investors begin to grasp the potential. There are many potential use cases for mRNA technology, bringing new hope for cures and vaccines for diseases such as malaria, cancer, and HIV. The race against time that the COVID–19 pandemic has forced scientists to participate in has brought results. We are much closer today to a number of medical breakthroughs than we were in 2019.