As the world waited with bated breath, scientists worked around the clock at breakneck speed to create an mRNA vaccine to protect against the novel coronavirus.
Now, experts say that technology could and should be harnessed to develop vaccines for other emerging or existing diseases including malaria, HIV or even cancer.
What is an mRNA vaccine and how can we use the technology moving forward?
Here’s a closer look at what’s going on.
How do mRNA vaccines work?
mRNA vaccines work by delivering the code for a virus’ protein into a human body’s cells so that it can make the protein on its own, Dr. Matthew Miller, an associate professor with McMaster University’s department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences explained.
“So these proteins are just one small, tiny piece of a pathogen that on their own don’t do any harm,” he said. “But what they do is they teach our immune system what the pathogen looks like so that if we ever encounter it, our immune system is ready and can protect us before the pathogen can make us sick.”
While no mRNA vaccines had been approved for use in humans until 2020, work to develop the technology has been ongoing for several years.
Miller said the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines were developed so quickly because the technology had been tested and studied against other viruses, including the deadly MERS coronavirus, which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
He said the SARS-Cov-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 diseases is “very, very closely related” to MERS.
“And as a result of that, it was relatively easy to translate the techonology to be used for the current SARS-Cov-2 pandemic.”
Protecting against other diseases with mRNA vaccines
Does that mean the technology could also be translated to treat other diseases?
Miller says “absolutely.”
“One of the big barriers to having mRNA vaccines work well was figuring out how to protect the mRNA and get it into cells efficiently,” he explained. “And so now that we have a vaccine that’s been really successful in doing that, mRNA, in general, is a platform that can be fairly easily adapted to be tested against not only other coronaviruses but potentially other infectious diseases altogether.”
Miller said he would not be surprised to see a “really big increase” in the number of mRNA vaccines available for other infectious diseases “in the coming years.”
“Things like malaria, potentially tuberculosis, HIV, influenza,” he said. “There are mRNA vaccines that are also being tested against cancer.”
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases faculty member at the University of Toronto, echoed Miller’s remarks, saying this is a “big deal.”
“You can think about applying this to other significant infections like malaria or dengue or Zika or chikungunya, like the list goes on and on and on,” he said.
“There’s a ton of applicability to use the mRNA technology to really combat other emerging infectious diseases.”
Miller said mRNA vaccines are also “very easily amenable to updates,” meaning they can be adjusted or changed quickly, which is helpful as the virus mutates over time.
“It could be updated very quickly to address, a changing or mutating SARS-Cov-2 virus,” he said. “But also a potential new coronavirus outbreak or epidemic in the future as well.”
Both Miller and Bogoch agreed that now that successful mRNA vaccines have been developed if another large-scale outbreak were to occur, researchers could lean on the existing technology and it could cut down the time it would take to develop vaccines.
Increasing manufacturing capabilities
One of the things that had been “most preclusive” to mRNA vaccine development, is that they require “somewhat specialized manufacturing facilities,” Miller said.
However, he said now that the mRNA vaccines to protect against COVID-19 have been so successful, we will likely see an expansion in the manufacturing and production infrastructure required to make the vaccines.
“So if they’re needed, we’re able to produce more doses more quickly, because there will be more places around the world capable of supporting the production,” he said.
Bogoch too, said he expects to see more facilities built to manufacture mRNA vaccines, not just for COVID-19, but for other infectious diseases too.
“You can’t go back — this technology has proven to be very effective. We’ve clearly seen very effective vaccines that were created in a short period of time and mass-produced quickly, he said.
“It’s such an obvious win.”