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mRNA Vaccines Mark a New Era in Medicine

Since the beginning of this century, the world has witnessed SARS in China, H1N1 (swine flu) in Mexico and the US, MERS in the Middle East, Ebola in West Africa, Zika across the American continent, and for the last one and half years, COVID-19 as a global pandemic. mRNA therapeutics may become our new weapons against viral infections and many other health issues.

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The revolutionary mRNA vaccine

“We are witnessing the start of a revolution in medical science, the revolution of messenger RNA.” – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen[1]

Messenger RNAs (mRNAs) serve as an intermediate between DNA and proteins. In 1990, scientists discovered that by injecting mRNAs, they could induce the expression of encoded proteins. In 2013, CureVac, a German biopharmaceutical company, conducted the first mRNA vaccine human trial.

Conventional vaccines introduce weakened or modified viruses or bacteria into the human body to create a protective immune response. mRNA vaccines inject synthetic mRNA that will instruct the body’s own cells to produce a protein that is part of the virus. The immune system, in turn, learns a protective response against the protein. In case of viral infection, the immune system will recognize the same protein and activate an immune response to kill the virus. Compared to conventional vaccines, mRNA vaccines are safer, more effective, and can be produced faster and more cheaply.[2]

The advantages of mRNA were showcased during the COVID-19 pandemic. On 10 January 2020, China released genetic data on the coronavirus. Scientists wasted no time looking for effective vaccines. On 20 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global health emergency.[3] In February 2020, the WHO said it did not think a vaccine against COVID-19 could be available in less than 18 months.[4] Ten months later, on 11 December 2020, the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use, and on 18 December, another mRNA vaccine by Moderna was approved.[5] The lightning speed at which the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine was developed exceeded many people’s expectations.

mRNA vaccines can not only be developed quickly, but they can also be manufactured more cheaply and easily. While conventional vaccine production is labor-intensive and requires huge production facilities for cell cultures, the manufacturing of mRNA vaccine is completely synthetic and does not require any cells.

“It will only take Pfizer/BioNTech two years to manufacture enough COVID-19 vaccines for the whole world. The volume of all the vaccines equals to two Olympic size swimming pools.” – Anna Blakney, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia[6]

mRNA therapeutics beyond COVID

mRNA provides temporary instructions for cells to express a protein that has therapeutic or preventive effects. The therapeutic potential of mRNA extends far beyond COVID. Currently, three major biopharmaceutical companies are conducting pioneering work in the field of mRNA therapeutics: Moderna, Curevac, and BioNTech. Each of these companies has around a dozen therapeutic or vaccine candidates in their pipeline. The combined portfolio of the three major companies covers treatments for applications such as metabolic diseases, heart diseases, and cancer immunotherapy.

Seasonal flu and other respiratory viral diseases are areas where we could soon expect mRNA vaccines to make a real difference. Conventional flu vaccines are only 50 percent effective because they have to be reformulated every year up to nine months in advance due to their slow production process. In 2020, it took only 66 days for Moderna to make its COVID-19 vaccine and start a human trial. In July 2021, Moderna started human trials to test an mRNA flu vaccine against four different strains of flu viruses. The company aims to develop an mRNA combination vaccine targeting multiple viruses such as influenza, SARS-CoV-2, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), according to Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna.

“Our vision is to develop an mRNA combination vaccine so that people can get one shot each fall for high efficacy protection against the most problematic respiratory viruses.” – Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna[7]

Personalized cancer mRNA vaccine

Personalised mRNA cancer vaccine

“There is a vaccine against cancer” has been one of the earliest future milestones on the Supertrends timeline. A personalized cancer vaccine would be a dream come true for both healthcare providers and cancer patients and their families.

The possibility of rapid alteration of the mRNA sequence, combined with its cost-effective development, is making personalized mRNA cancer treatment tailored to the needs of individual patients more feasible and achievable.

There are currently multiple mRNA cancer vaccines in clinical trials, developed by the three major RNA companies. Some of them have taken an individualized approach, such as mRNA-4157, a vaccine against melanoma developed by Moderna. In the mRNA-4157 approach, the cells from one single patient’s tumour are analyzed to identify 20 antigen-binding sites. The genetic sequencing of these binding sites is then loaded onto an mRNA molecule before being administered again to the same patients to induce immune responses that specifically target that patient’s cancer cells.[8]

A disruptive therapeutic technology

The mRNA-based platform enables companies to develop vaccines and therapeutics relatively quickly and in a more scalable process. With the capacities the major companies have developed in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, it won’t be a surprise if we see other innovative mRNA medicines rapidly entering the market and changing the standard of care for many disorders.

On 28 July 2021, BioNTech announced its plan to develop the first mRNA-based vaccine for malaria and to have it produced in Africa.[9] There is already one malaria vaccine on the market, and others are in development. However, due to its safety, efficiency, and scalability, an mRNA vaccine could provide a breakthrough that paves the way to the long-sought goal of eradicating malaria.

Despite the dominant position of the three major biopharmaceutical companies Moderna, Curevac, and BioNTech, when it comes to the commercialization of mRNA therapeutics, the cost-effective and relatively simple-to-manufacture technology also enables small mRNA biotech start-ups and research groups to develop new and personalized RNA constructs. It is also possible to establish hospital-based RNA therapeutics.[10] A more localized and personalized therapeutic approach may be the future of disruptive RNA therapeutic technology.

Search “Future of healthcare” on the Supertrends Pro app, tell us what you think will be the target of the next mRNA vaccines, and make your prediction for the following milestones:

© 2021 Supertrends

[1] Pharmaceutical giant BioNTech sets sights on malaria vaccine. Africanews. 27 July 2021.

[2] How does a mRNA vaccine compare to a traditional vaccine? Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 16 November 2020.

[3] Schumaker E., Timeline: How coronavirus got started. abc News. 22 September 2020.

[4] Grenfell R, Drew T. Here’s why the WHO says a coronavirus vaccine is 18 months away. Business Insider. 14 February 2020.

[5] Ball P., The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines – and what it means for other diseases. Nature. 18 December 2020.

[6] Blakney A., RNA: The next generation of medicine. 26 June 2021, Future of Healthcare (Webinar). NewScientistLive.

[7] Moderna Announces First Participant Dosed in Phase 1/2 Study of Its Quadrivalent Seasonal Flu mRNA Vaccine. Busninesswire. 07 July 2021.

[8] mRNA-based personalized cancer vaccine mRNA-4157. National Cancer Institute. Accessed on 27 July 2021.

[9] BioNTech Provides Update on Plans to Develop Sustainable Solutions to Address Infectious Diseases on the African Continent. BioNTech press release. 26 July 2021.

[10] Damase T. R. et al., The Limitless Future of RNA Therapeutics. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. 2021. 9: 161. DOI: 10.3389/fbioe.2021.628137

Medicine, mRNA

Jiqing Hansen

Having worked passionately for 15+ years in Medicine, I felt that I yearned to do something a little bit different, something that satisfies my curiosity and creativity, maybe something that helps to inform me and others what our world will look like in the future. That's when I took on the challenge of being the editor & expert relationship manager at Supertrends. I love the fact that I can still be in touch with my academic background when I am trying to understand and reach out to the experts in the most exciting fields. I also love the diverse and enthusiastic team at Supertrends. The best of all, I get to have a peek into the future, and I am at the position of helping many others to get the opportunity to look into the future.

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