Twenty years ago, we began work on an exciting new technology called synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA), unaware of how significant it would become throughout the 2020s. As the world was torn apart by COVID-19 last year, scientists turned to “mRNA as a way to create potential vaccines; in late December 2020, at a time when more than 1.5 million had died from COVID-19 worldwide, the vaccines were approved in the U.S., marking the beginning of the end of the pandemic“.
Today, thanks to this medical breakthrough and the swift, arduous work of biotechnology firms, people throughout the world are finally receiving their first or second vaccination for the virus. Going forward, these vaccines could potentially be what slows and eventually stops the spread of the virus – as well as any mutations. Therefore, it might be a good idea to better understand what synthetic mRNA is exactly.
mRNA is a naturally-occurring molecule found in the human body similar to DNA. The trillions of cells in the human body are all involved in the process of gene expression, which essentially helps make each of us unique. Synthetic mRNA is natural mRNA combined with technology to synthesize something unique, sort of like biological software or a cyborg cell.
Biotech firms can possibly control gene expression “by making precise tweaks to synthetic mRNA and injecting people with it, [so that] any cell in the body could be transformed into an on-demand drug factory“. Viruses use proteins to give commands to cells, such as replicating a bad cell until the entire body is infected. mRNA can simulate this process by masquerading as these virus cells and triggering an immune response.
We’ve seen this firsthand with the speed at which the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed, and with their approval by the FDA. Both vaccines are able to trigger our immune systems to develop protective antibodies without the need for COVID-19 to be present in the body.
Before, an inactivated vaccine was commonly used to treat viruses by introducing dead or dying cells into our systems to give our bodies an idea of what exactly these potential threats look like. With synthetic mRNA, that might no longer be necessary.
Why this Breakthrough is Important
COVID vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna have proven that synthetic mRNA finally has a place in the medical world, hinting at a future in which similar vaccines can be developed to deal with other infectious diseases such as malaria and ebola. Because we can easily manipulate mRNA, we should also be able to alter vaccines in case COVID-19 continues to mutate into alternate and more deadly strains.
Not only could vaccines for infectious diseases be finally treatable with mRNA – influenza, rabies, and HIV are all already undergoing human trials – but they could also be developed within three or four months. While this might seem overly optimistic, this discovery may have revolutionized modern medicine entirely: “mRNA vaccines can be used to target almost any pathogen. … You put in the code for a particular protein that stimulates an immune response. … It’s essentially unlimited.”
Of course, only time will tell.
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