After the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA technology is fast-tracked to the next wave of transformational therapies. This emerging class of nucleic acid therapies offers a range of opportunities to cure diseases and prevent illness.
From understanding undiagnosed cancers to detecting resistant clones ahead of time, here’s how mRNA technology will change medicine.
In the human body, mRNA is a blueprint that tells cells which proteins to make. By mimicking that process, scientists could, in theory, program cells to produce proteins they couldn’t get naturally — antibodies to fight infection, enzymes to reverse rare diseases, and growth agents to mend damaged tissue. It’s essentially biological software and showed promise in lab experiments through the 1990s.
But mRNA’s Achilles heel proved stubbornly tough to crack. One problem was getting the mRNA to get inside cells. Another was that, once there, it triggered the immune system to go to war against the synthetic “intruder” that had been injected. Until that is, an infectious diseases specialist developed better ways to deliver the mRNA into cells.
They created liposomes, a group of tiny fat bubbles that can carry the mRNA into the cell. Then, they found a way to package the mRNA in a form the immune system couldn’t recognize. Their solution was so successful that Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines, approved by the FDA in 2021, are based on this technology.
But the success of mRNA technology is about more than the science. It’s also about accessibility and affordability. As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, it became clear that low- and middle-income countries had nowhere to turn for the necessary vaccines. Production bottlenecks, supply chain issues, and the tendency of companies to prioritize sales to rich countries meant they were often left out in the cold. That’s why the WHO supports efforts by companies like Moderna and Biontech to set up mRNA production hubs in Africa to support quality, scaled-up manufacturing.
Personalized medicine means the careful matching of your biology to medical care. Your genes, medical history, and risk factors are unique. And so are the ways that you respond to medications. What works well for some may not work or cause serious side effects.
MRNA technology aims to create innovative, tailored medicines that direct your cells to make exactly what they need when they need it. Using genetic data, your body can be required to manufacture proteins that could halt a disease or treat an infection, including antibodies that attack an infectious agent or enzymes that repair damaged cells.
Moderna exemplified the power of this new approach in the COVID-19 pandemic. But the company aims to use the same technology to address more common diseases and conditions.
To make it viable, the scientists who invented mRNA technology resolved some stubborn problems. The first was that injecting synthetic mRNA triggered the body’s immune response—which would destroy it before it had time to do much good. They solved this by encasing the mRNA in lipid nanoparticles that slip into cells without triggering an immune response. This enables them to test vaccines that could target any protein your body needs—whether antibodies to fight infection or enzymes to fix an illness.
The mRNA technology that made Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccines possible also has the potential to enable predictive medicine. This approach uses specific laboratory and genetic tests to determine an individual’s disease probability.
For instance, some doctors use a blood sample from a newborn to assess their risk of developing certain genetic disorders. Likewise, a patient’s smoking history can make them more susceptible to lung cancer or emphysema than non-smokers. These types of tests are used to confirm a doctor’s hunches and help patients understand their chances of suffering from certain diseases.
Predictive medicine will expand to encompass various clinical variables, including data collected from social media sites and billing records. By analyzing this information, doctors can quantify an individual’s risks for different healthcare outcomes and determine the best course of action for treatment.
During the 1990s, she spent much of her time collecting rejections. Her research on mRNA, the chemical messenger that tells cells to produce proteins, seemed far-fetched to government agencies and investors. However, the discovery that mRNA could be modified to slip into cells and instruct them to create antibodies had enormous potential. They formed Moderna, which they named for their cloaked mRNA. They hoped that, eventually, they could develop vaccines that would mimic the body’s natural process of creating proteins to fight infection and disease.
The future of medicine is incredibly individualized. By 2040, medical science will have collected DNA sequencing data from millions of patients, shedding light on associations between genes and diseases. This new era of personalized medicine – also called “precision medicine” – will enable doctors to start treating patients based on their specific genetic profile and response to treatment.
The company behind mRNA vaccines, Moderna, was built on the premise that if you can get the body to produce antibodies against one disease, you can do it for many different conditions. The mRNA technology can train the body to make antibodies against any protein on a pathogen’s surface, and it can be applied to existing vaccines to improve their efficacy.
While advances like this can positively affect the world of Healthcare, there are a few caveats worth considering. For example, technology is likely to increase the disparity between rich and poor regarding access to Healthcare. Additionally, precision medicine can create new controversies over data security and privacy.
But despite these concerns, the potential of mRNA and other technologies is too great to ignore. “The use of artificial intelligence to transform medicine brings significant ethical and legal implications that require careful consideration.”