The mRNA biotechnology revolution unleashed by COVID vaccine breakthroughs is just beginning — and it will impact disease research for decades to come

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Credit: Josh Aspril/Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health
Credit: Josh Aspril/Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health

The messenger RNA, or mRNA, platform may be new to the global public, but it’s a technology that researchers had been betting on for decades. Now those bets are paying off, and not just by turning back a pandemic that killed millions in just a year.

This approach that led to remarkably safe and effective vaccines against a new virus is also showing promise against old enemies such as HIV, and infections that threaten babies and young children, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and metapneumovirus. It’s being tested as a treatment for cancers, including melanoma and brain tumors. It might offer a new way to treat autoimmune diseases. And it’s also being checked out as a possible alternative to gene therapy for intractable conditions such as sickle cell disease.

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Moderna — a company formed specially to develop mRNA technology — is working on personalized cancer vaccines.

“We identify mutations found on a patient’s cancer cells… We then create a vaccine that encodes for each of these mutations and load them onto a single mRNA molecule,” Moderna says. That’s injected into the patient to try to help orchestrate a better immune response against the tumors.

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