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mRNA vaccines changed the course of the pandemic. Now, they could cure all kinds of other diseases

#mRNA vaccines changed the course of the #COVID19 pandemic. Now, they are being developed to cure other diseases such as #AIDS, #cancer, #LymeDisease & #influenza.

The COVID-19 pandemic is what historians refer to as an "inflection point," or a single event that has a dramatic and sweeping effect on the human story. In the case of this particular event, it changed the way we work, raised awareness about public health policy, contributed to the toppling of a president — and, in the field of medicine, resulted in a leap forward for vaccine technology. Indeed, one of the great unsung achievements amid the pandemic was how scientists from around the world worked together to create multiple effective vaccines in less than a year.

Yet what may prove most historic is the biotechnology that emerged from the pandemic. Specifically, the vision of an mRNA vaccine went from dream to reality. And the successful creation of a viable mRNA vaccine could have repercussions for the way diseases are treated for centuries.

That technology, whose development was quickened by the pandemic, is already being studied to treat other diseases. Earlier this month, scientists at Yale University created a prototype mRNA vaccine that protected guinea pigs from tick-borne diseases by training their immune systems to recognize and fight proteins found in tick saliva. They hope that, with some further development, this could be used to help humans avoid developing Lyme disease if a tick bites them.

Yet this is merely one example of mRNA vaccines' potential, revealing how they have far more utility than merely fighting COVID-19. Indeed, mRNA vaccines are something of a holy grail of medical innovation — and researchers believe that mRNA vaccines and their underlying biotechnology could be used to fight diseases like HIV, cancer, and influenza.

The promise of mRNA vaccines

As their name suggests, mRNA vaccines depend on the nucleic acid known as RNA. RNA is a molecule similar to DNA, but it is single-stranded (DNA is double-stranded) and plays a large number of roles in keeping your cells alive and healthy. But don't think they are unique to humans: They are found in all living things. There are also certain types of viruses — like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 — that could be characterized as little more than RNA strands surrounded by protein shells. Like all viruses, they take over cells and force them to churn out other copies of themselves, the worst kind of mooch you can imagine.

Yet RNA and mRNA are not precisely the same thing. mRNA refers to "messenger RNA," a specific type of RNA that (as indicated by its name) transmits information from genetic codes in the nucleus to the cytoplasm where proteins are manufactured.

This hints at how mRNA vaccines work, which is essentially by giving your cells a blueprint of a part of a virus, and then having them manufacture what they need on their own. Previously, vaccines contained either a dead or weakened version of a pathogen, which the immune system would then learn to recognize. But mRNA vaccines don't actually contain any of a live or dead virus; instead, they contain a set of instructions (in mRNA) that infects some of the host's cells and makes them spit out a piece of protein associated with a pathogen. One's cells never manufacture the actual virus; only a piece of its "shell," say. Those pieces are then detected by the immune system and identified and destroyed. It would be a bit like learning the presence of a criminal by identifying the look of their clothing, rather than the criminal themselves.

In the case of the mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, the mRNA contains instructions for one's cells on how to create the spike protein. The spike proteins are the little points that emerge out of the coronavirus, like spines jutting from a sea urchin, and they are what the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to enter your cells and get you sick with COVID-19. The mRNA vaccines have been extraordinarily successful in protecting the vaccinated; even though they have not entirely thwarted breakthrough cases, they significantly reduce the likelihood of getting sick, and the people who do develop infections with evasive mutant variants rarely become seriously ill. Most notably, mRNA vaccines were the first ones to be released on the market, with Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna winning the vaccine race exactly one year ago this month.

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