How mRNA technology is altering vaccine treatments


Back in January, only one month after Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine was approved for emergency use, fears a couple of contagious variant pressure started to grip the nation – and scientists at Moderna instantly realized this might be a risk.

“We didn’t think we had time to wait,” mentioned Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of the company. “We thought, ‘If we don’t start now, then by the time we get to the fall, we won’t have an updated vaccine in case those variants really become a significant concern and start reinfecting people.”

As hundreds of thousands of doses rolled off the manufacturing line at their facility in Norwood, Mass., Hoge’s crew started working to re-tool the vaccine.

National Public Radio correspondent Allison Aubrey requested, “And within a week, you had designed a new vaccine?”

“We designed that vaccine really overnight, and started manufacturing, and had it, and moved it into clinical trials within a month,” he replied.

It can take years to make a brand new vaccine, so this was a breakthrough. “How is that possible?” Aubrey requested.

“Well, it has to do with our technology,” mentioned Hoge. “We use something called messenger RNA, or mRNA for short. It’s really just an instruction molecule, kind of like a software program for your cells. It just sends instructions about what the virus looks like to your immune system. So just like a software program, or a Word document, we can simply edit something, change it, and then manufacture it very, very quickly.”

He makes it sound really easy, however it’s taken greater than a decade of analysis, and lots of technological hurdles. Now, the company has some massive plans. “We’ve had an incredible year using messenger RNA to fight a pandemic,” Hoge mentioned. “But we think we’re just starting in the infectious disease space, And so, there’s a large number of other vaccines we’re bringing forward.”

Moderna’s analysis pipeline contains all the pieces from an HIV vaccine, to coronary heart illness treatments, to vaccines for various sorts of most cancers, together with lymphoma and melanoma.

Connie Franciosi is already taking part in a single scientific trial. Diagnosed with melanoma in May 2020, she’s a two-time most cancers survivor. And after surgical procedure to take away the melanoma, her physician had some troubling information: “He did indicate that they had found melanoma cells in my lymph nodes, which meant that I would need to have further treatment,” Franciosi mentioned.

“So, you were at high risk of relapse?” Aubrey requested.

“Yes. I was considered high risk for melanoma again.”

She began on a cancer-fighting immunotherapy drug – and he or she was supplied the prospect to get the experimental mRNA vaccine designed to forestall a relapse.

Franciosi mentioned, “When you weigh the possible benefits from something like this, I just had to go for it.”

Dr. Ryan Sullivan, of Massachusetts General Hospital, is treating Franciosi. He mentioned the thought is that the vaccine may also help generate the correct mix of cancer-fighting immune cells: “It’s definitely too soon to say I’m optimistic, but the jury’s still out. The best-case scenario is that a combination of an mRNA vaccine plus a standard immunotherapy is shown to reduce the risk of relapse. And if we see that happen, it will change the way we treat patients in the future.”

It will take a number of years to find out this. In the meantime, Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel thinks mRNA technology can revolutionize a shot hundreds of thousands of us already get every year: the flu shot. 

Currently, flu vaccines take months to provide. “Everything is wrong about it. The very process of making it makes no sense,” Bancel mentioned.

To make the photographs, Scientists truly inject flu virus into eggs. It’s a decades-old method, and, Bancel mentioned, it is a part of the rationale they are not at all times efficient: “You have to start very early on, so you have to guess which strain will be in the U.S. next year.”

So, his plan is to vary this. Moderna goals to start out a scientific trial later this year, and if it seems COVID boosters are wanted, Moderna desires to mix its coronavirus vaccines with a brand new flu shot. “So, we’re gonna just throw everything out the window and give you a good, high-efficacy vaccine every winter,” Bancel mentioned. “And then we’re gonna combine it with a COVID vaccine booster, so you can have a nice winter.” 

That’s his imaginative and prescient for the longer term. It’s not clear how this may prove, however what is clear is that Moderna (which grew from a tiny startup to a family identify over the course of a year) is betting on the velocity and flexibility of mRNA technology. 

Aubrey requested Hoge, “So basically, you have developed a delivery system for all kinds of different medications or therapies?”

“That’s really the promise of the technology,” he replied. “It really is the same system every time. Just like we updated our vaccine in January for the new variants of concern in SARS-CoV-2, we can actually update it to go after all of the other viruses that we’re looking at just as quickly. And that really allows us to advance medicines across a wide range of diseases, both in cancer and in vaccines.”

Meanwhile, Connie Franciosi says she’s again to dwelling a busy life, and again into her backyard. 

Aubrey mentioned, “It seems like you have a lot to live for.”

“I do. There are certain things I can’t change – can’t change my age, can’t change my DNA, or the fact that I’ve had cancer. But I can change my attitude toward it, the opportunities that have been presented to me to do everything I can to avoid having a recurrence.”

And taking part within the mRNA analysis trial additionally makes her really feel she’s giving again.

“I feel very fortunate,” Franciosi mentioned. “I feel very fortunate indeed to have this opportunity because you’re helping humanity, you’re helping people down the road, people you’ll never meet.”


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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Chad Cardin.


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