mRNA Vaccines

By Chris Yang | Last Updated: March 28, 2021

Image by: Lexi Wang

What is an mRNA Vaccine?  

mRNA, or messenger RNA, is a blueprint molecule that tells living cells how to make proteins. mRNA vaccines contain synthetic mRNA that encodes a disease-specific protein. When injected, the synthetic mRNA teaches our bodies to generate a lasting immune response. 

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Key Takeaways

  • mRNA vaccines have been proven to protect against severe Covid-19 infection.

  • mRNA vaccines undergo the same vetting processes that other vaccines go through.

  • mRNA vaccines do not contain live virus and cannot integrate into the host genome (read: you won’t become a Zombie).

  • mRNA vaccine manufacturing is inexpensive, flexible and scalable.

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mRNA Vaccine Development: A Background 

Conventional vaccines are made from lab-grown viruses, which scientists then adapt for injection into humans. In the 1980s, scientists began exploring more efficient methods of vaccine manufacturing. Since mRNA is cheap and easy to synthesize, scientists hypothesized that mRNA isolated from pathogens could be used to vaccinate people just as well as conventional vaccines.

After decades of research, scientists finally developed methods to package mRNA vaccines that are effective at generating immune responses. In 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread, scientists worked at a breakneck pace to create a safe and effective Covid-19 mRNA vaccine. 

It’s Showtime, Baby 

mRNA vaccines undergo the same vetting processes that other vaccines go through (read: they are safe). mRNA vaccines only contain fragments of mRNA, so they don’t introduce live virus into the body and can’t change or alter DNA once injected.

mRNA vaccine production is cheaper and quicker than conventional vaccine production. mRNA vaccines are also easier to customize; when the Covid-19 mRNA vaccine was found to be fragile and temperature-sensitive, scientists engineered ways to combat its degradation. For these reasons, mRNA vaccines offer an effective and simple solution to rapidly evolving pathogens.

Implications

mRNA vaccines are a new and exciting technology that could open many doors in personalized medicine. In the context of cancer, mRNA vaccines could be tailored to fit the unique gene expression profile of individual tumors. In fact, they could be engineered to treat any disease influenced by known genetic factors, such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s. The possibilities are endless - and exciting.

While the clinical efficacy of mRNA vaccines for diseases other than Covid-19 remains to be seen, they are 100% a promising technology worth paying attention to.

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Outside the Huddle

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Reviewed by Geetika Rao, MPH | Edited by Nidhi Mahagaokar, MPH and Jared Dashevsky, M.Eng. | Fact checked by Julia Radossich, PA-C