Overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic has become a worldwide effort to produce effective and safe vaccines as quickly as possible. Some vaccine developers have used messenger RNA (mRNA) technology to do this. Both of the current EAU COVID-19 Vaccines being distributed, Pfizer and Moderna, utilize mRNA technology. While COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are new, they are not unknown. mRNA’s therapeutic uses have been studied for over a decade by researchers. These vaccines are just the beginning of how mRNA has the capability of revolutionizing the way we treat disease and improve health.

What is mRNA?

To understand what mRNA is, we have to look at the entire cell. All cells contain DNA genomes, these hold the genes that sustain life. Genes provide specific instructions to make a protein, and the protein carries out a particular function or job to keep the cell running properly.

Let’s look at the genome as a set of instructions, like a cookbook. If only one set of instructions was needed, for example if your friend just wanted to make the chocolate cake recipe, it would not make sense to give them your entire cookbook. You would make them a copy of the exact chocolate cake recipe they want. In this cook book, chocolate cake example, the MRNA acts as the copy of the chocolate cake recipe from the complete cook book.  If the researchers are simply trying to make a single protein, or your friend is simply trying to make a chocolate cake, using mRNA provides the specific protein, or the copy of the recipe provides the exact chocolate cake recipe. This makes it easier and quicker than working with the complete volumes of information in your genome, or in this example sifting through the entire cookbook.

How does mRNA work with COVID-19 vaccine development?

To understand how mRNA technology works in COVID-19 vaccine development, we first need to understand how coronavirus infects the body. Taking a look at coronavirus, the outside is made up of spiked proteins. These proteins are easily identifiable for the immune system to recognize and attack. The infection begins when coronavirus binds to a host cell. At this point, coronavirus is inserting its genetic makeup into the cell via the spike proteins, this allows it to reproduce and spread. A virus cannot reproduce on its own, it needs these spike proteins in order to insert itself into host cells. This is where vaccine researchers come in, they make antibodies against the spike protein. If cells produce antibodies that interfere with the spike proteins, they can prevent infection of the disease.

How do these mRNA vaccines protect you? When the mRNA is introduced to a host cell, the mRNA machinery makes the viral spike protein and presents it to the immune system in order to trigger a response. By using this process, there is no actual infectious material introduced into the body. These vaccines do not contain a live virus and carry no risk of causing disease in the vaccinated person.

How else has mRNA been used in research and health?

While the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are the first of their kind, researchers have studied mRNA’s potential therapeutic uses for years. mRNA has allowed researchers the ability to treat severe allergies, rare diseases when the body lacks to make a certain protein, and enzyme replacement therapy by providing mRNA for a protein’s need. These COVID-19 vaccines are only the beginning of many ways mRNA technology can revolutionize the way we treat disease and improve human health.