Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines

January 15, 2021

What You Should Know About mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines     

By Jane Meggitt

A new type of virus requires a new type of vaccine. That is the case with COVID-19 and the mRNA vaccine. mRNA, short for Messenger Ribonucleic Acid, has unique capabilities to effectively combat the COVID-19 virus. It could prove key to getting the world back to a new normal.

mRNA

The National Human Genome Research Institute describes mRNA  as a “single-stranded RNA molecule complementary to one of the DNA strands of a gene.” Think of mRNA as an RNA version of the gene that after leaving the cell nucleus moves to the cytoplasm. The latter is where proteins are made.

The machinery making these proteins, known as translation machinery, binds to mRNA molecules. After reading the code on the mRNA, the translation machinery creates a specific protein. Thus, DNA for one gene is transcribed into the mRNA molecule making that one protein.

Three Decades of Work

The name COVID-19 breaks down to CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for the year of the outbreak of this novel coronavirus. It is amazing that an effective vaccine was developed for battling COVID-19 in less than one year. However, the process for developing mRNA vaccines started three decades ago.

Scientists had to modify mRNA so the immune system would not overreact. They then had to ensure immune system cells consumed mRNA as it passed through the bloodstream. Next, the cells required encouragement to produce this vital protein in significant amounts. Lastly, they had to determine how to enclose the mRNA in microscopic capsules to avoid having blood chemicals destroying it.

Scientists also discovered that mRNA vaccines generate immunity in two ways. Not only do they prompt the immune system to make antibodies, but they also cause the immune system to produce killer cells. For viruses, that means mRNA vaccines pack a double punch.

Just as the novel coronavirus is new to humans, so are mRNA vaccines. Keep in mind the true development of this vaccine spans more than 30 years. Prior to the pandemic, mRNA vaccines were previously studied for:

  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
  • Flu
  • Rabies
  • Zika virus

Some challenges were found in these early clinical stage trials. Technological advancements have since alleviated many of these challenges, improving efficacy and safety.

Researchers are hopeful that mRNA vaccine technology will eventually provide one vaccine to protect the population from many diseases. There is even the potential for mRNA to fight cancer by causing the immune system to attack certain cancer cells.

mRNA Covid-19 Vaccines

Most vaccines use inactive or weak versions of the pathogen causing the disease to boost the body’s immune response, thus creating antibodies. That is not the case with mRNA vaccines. There is no live virus in an mRNA vaccine. The vaccine recipient does not have to worry that they can contract the disease from the vaccine. There is no interaction with the person’s DNA, as the mRNA does not enter the cell nucleus. It cannot change a person’s genetic makeup.

Instead, mRNA COVID-19 vaccines trigger an immune response by instructing the cells to make a spike protein unique to COVID-19. As a partial protein, it cannot harm the vaccinated individual. The cells then break down and dispose of the mRNA strand via their enzymes. The protein kicks off the process of immune system antibody production, as well as T-cell activation. Together, antibodies and T-cells fight off any COVID-19 infection.  

Fast Production

A key advantage of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine lies in its relatively short manufacturing time. The CDC notes that mRNA vaccines are developable in a laboratory using a DNA template and readily available materials. The rapid standardization of the process allows much faster development compared to traditional vaccines.

That rapidity translates into vaccines heading to clinics for testing on a tight timeframe. With a pandemic threatening not only global health but the world’s economy, time is of the essence.

Contact Us

At Yosemite Pathology and Precision Pathology, we provide the critical reporting necessary for doctors and patients to make informed healthcare decisions. To learn more about our services and how we can help, contact us today. For over 70 years, our laboratory has served not only as a quality-focused partner for patient care, but a crucial resource for patients to learn more about their disease, diagnosis, and treatment options.  We offer COVID-19 testing for patients using the Aptima SARS-CoV-2 assay.

Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications, including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor, nj.com, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.

Sources:

Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines | CDC

Understanding and Explaining mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines | CDC

Why are mRNA vaccines so exciting? – Harvard Health Blog – Harvard Health Publishing

Messenger RNA (mRNA) (genome.gov)

What is the official name of the novel coronavirus? | FAQ (nj.gov)