COVID-19 sparks vaccine breakthroughs
Scientists could apply mRNA technology to develop new cancer treatments
Historically, most vaccines have taken a decade or more to develop: The record-setting mumps shot released in 1967 took only four years. But shortly after the novel coronavirus first surfaced in China, experimental drugmaker Moderna developed a formula to protect against COVID-19 within 48 hours in January 2020. After that, the company could move on with safety trials.
Thanks to a revolutionary approach to vaccination spearheaded by Moderna and Pfizer, more than 24 million Americans had received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 immunization as of Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The success of mRNA technology highlights the promise of computer-engineered immunizations.
Traditionally, vaccines used weakened versions of live viruses to spur immune responses. For decades, producers have injected chicken eggs with pathogens like the influenza virus, allowed the microbes to replicate, and then killed the antigens before purifying them. The popular nasal spray version of the flu shot carries pathogens that are alive but too weak to do any harm.
For the newly developed mRNA (short for messenger RNA) vaccines, scientists don’t need the virus at all, just its genetic blueprint. While traditional vaccines require time to weaken pathogens in laboratories, scientists with a pathogen’s genome can design mRNA immunizations on a computer in just days.
Rather than infect a patient with a weakened form of a sickness, mRNA vaccines teach the body’s immune system to fight a virus it has never encountered. Cells create mRNA sequences to send out instructions to the rest of the body. Scientists can engineer a sequence with instructions for harmless proteins that mimic a virus and trigger the correct immune response. After the body’s immune system successfully defeats the infection in a single cell, it stores the information in memory cells.
Scientists writing in the journal Nature Reviews Drug Discovery in 2018 called the mRNA vaccine “a new era in vaccinology.” Lead author and University of Pennsylvania vaccine specialist Norbert Pardi said the new technique could open the door to lightning-quick development and cheap production costs.
The new technology could also apply to other areas of medicine. Scientists and doctors with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston announced they designed experimental vaccines that taught patients’ immune systems to destroy tumors caused by the deadly skin cancer melanoma. Researchers tested the formula on eight melanoma patients, studying the proteins found in the tumors and concocting an mRNA sequence for each. While researchers cautioned cancer vaccines are no silver bullet, all eight patients who received the shots were alive four years later. Of the eight, six showed no signs of cancer. “It’s not just taking something off the shelf, but actually taking information directly from the patient’s own tumor in order to direct the composition of the vaccine,” co-author Catherine Wu told LiveScience.
Ethical issues in vaccine production have given some Christians pause. Drug labs commonly use fetal cell lines while developing an inoculation because they are readily available. The mRNA vaccines’ new technology decreases reliance on cells derived from aborted babies but hasn’t eliminated them entirely. Five of the major COVID-19 vaccine developers used such cells to create the shots. Moderna and Pfizer did not, but, like most other immunizations, they did use fetal cell lines during testing, according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute. That’s not to say any of the original fetal tissue remains in the derived cells. What exists in labs today are cells many generations removed from the original source.
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