Vaccines currently being used to prevent COVID-19 were developed with a newer technique that scientists are attempting to use to produce vaccines for HIV, cancer and other ailments.
COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, which have been approved for use in the U.S. and are currently being distributed, were developed using messenger RNA (mRNA). Although scientists have been working to develop mRNA vaccines and therapies for decades, the COVID-19 vaccines are the first ever to be approved for use in humans.
The rapid development and emergency approval of the COVID-19 vaccines happened both due to massive monetary investments in vaccine production efforts and the good fortune of the pandemic coming at just the time when mRNA technology had become sufficiently advanced to produce a safe and effective vaccine. The success has inspired companies to accelerate efforts at using the mRNA technique to tackle a host of other diseases, with Moderna announcing three new vaccine projects earlier this month.
“The uniquely challenging year of 2020 for all of society proved to be an extraordinary proof-of-concept period for Moderna,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement. “Even as we have shown that our mRNA-based vaccine can prevent COVID-19, this has encouraged us to pursue more-ambitious development programs within our prophylactic vaccines modality.”
Traditional vaccines use modified or killed virus, or parts of protein present in the virus, to train the body’s immune system to kill infections before they take hold. The new mRNA vaccines prompt the body to produce the virus protein, which in the case of COVID-19 is the “spike” protein that the coronavirus uses to infect cells, without using any of the actual virus. Contrary to misinformation spread online following the release of the COVID-19 vaccines, mRNA vaccines are incapable of altering human genetic code.
The new projects being developed by Moderna include a possible HIV vaccine, something that scientists have been attempting to develop for decades only to repeatedly fall short. Using the mRNA approach offers new hope that an effective vaccine for the virus that causes AIDS may be produced, with a trial using monkeys showing promising results last year. The company has two candidates in development, with both expected to begin human clinical trials later in 2021.
Moderna is also using the mRNA platform to develop vaccines for common flu viruses. Slower techniques force scientists to guess which strains of the virus will be dominant in upcoming flu seasons, leading to vaccines that are only partially effective. Other companies may also be taking this approach, with a Pfizer spokesperson telling Newsweek that the company had been working on a flu vaccine with BioNTech prior to the COVID-19 project, although further development may be on hold.
The mRNA technique offers significant advantages against rapidly mutating viruses like influenza because vaccine candidates can be quickly updated with genetic sequences from the strains that are actually confirmed to be circulating, potentially producing shots that are far more effective than those being developed with guesswork in advance.
“RNA is basically biological code or biological software,” mRNA expert Dr. John P. Cooke told Healthline. “You write the code very quickly and pretty much encode in the RNA any protein that we want the cells to generate … If we can get that software into the cell, the cell will follow those instructions and make that protein for us.”
The third newly-announced program from Moderna, out of a total 24 programs that the company is working on, aims to develop a vaccine for the Nipah virus, a relatively rare pathogen that is transmitted through infected animals. The virus killed between 40 and 75 percent of those who contracted it in isolated outbreaks that have occurred in Asia since 2000.
A number of companies are also hoping to combat cancer with mRNA vaccines. Unlike vaccines for used to prevent viral infections, cancer vaccines are typically used to fight illness in those who have already developed cancer. Moderna has multiple cancer vaccines in clinical trials, including a personalized Melanoma vaccine that is tailored to individual patients. BioNTech is also using the mRNA platform to develop new experimental cancer therapies.
The mRNA technique is being used to develop vaccines and therapies against several other viruses, with trials having either been conducted or underway for Zika, cytomegalovirus and rabies vaccines. Vaccines for viruses that can cause some cancers, such as the Epstein-Barr virus, are in development as well. In addition, research into whether the technique could be useful against autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis is underway, while a possible mRNA-based therapy to help tackle heart disease is also being investigated.