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The Meaning Behind mRNA Technology

By Asha Kaikini

From the creation of the wheel to computers, the first airplane to take flight and even the moon landing, none of these accomplishments, however pivotal, can be remembered for curing a disease or saving lives. Cue mRNA vaccines.

This era, coined ‘RNAissance’ by Anna Blakney (science communicator and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia), is a one in a million scientific breakthrough, perhaps creating cures for diseases such as HIV, malarial parasites, tropical diseases, cancer and more. This topic of research has been highly debated over the years, with most believing it was an impossible dream - a theory at best. However, the recent pandemic has proven the efficiency and efficacy of using an mRNA vaccine.

Let’s break it down: A single stranded molecule, a mRNA is a messenger ribonucleic acid and is responsible for transporting genetic code from the nucleus of a cell to the cytoplasm, where the proteins are made. This is extremely important, and if not executed, the genetic information would not be applied, thus ceasing the production of proteins and making the body incapable of functioning. To simplify, once a virus enters the body, it releases its own RNA, therefore creating viral proteins that attack our immune system. By injecting antigens, a substance that causes the body’s immune system to react, standard vaccines allow the body’s defenses to recognize the virus cells. MRNA vaccines, however, use a piece of mRNA, and a small part of the corresponding protein on the surface of the viral cell’s membrane, therefore tricking the body into creating functioning antibodies, instead of injecting the antigens itself. The mRNA strands, once broken down by the cells and enzymes, disappear altogether, leaving only the antibodies. While this method may seem more complicated than the traditional techniques, mRNA vaccines are surprisingly safer, quicker, and cheaper to produce, compared to conventional vaccines.

The mRNA vaccine development process only requires one lab to sequence the proteins of the antigen, which can then be emailed all over the world, and is more practical than having

multiple bio-secure labs harvesting fatal viruses. Anna Blakney, a scientist heading mRNA

research projects, states, “With that information a lab could make a million doses of mRNA in a single 100 ml test tube.” This, in fact, is how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the first ever mRNA vaccines approved for humans, were developed.

As the popularity of mRNA vaccines increases, Blakney’s lab at UBC is researching saRNA (self-amplifying mRNA). Although it is composed of the same structural elements as

mRNA, once it has breached a cell, saRNA can multiply, thus reducing the dosage by roughly

100 times the normal mRNA.

While the global events, both political and medical, remain volatile, our scientific and

technological advancements look promising and will build the foundation for a world where

healthcare is available to all.






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