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COVID-19 silver coating: faster vaccine technology against other diseases

mRNA vaccines, such as those that protect against COVID-19, can be used to prevent other diseases, experts say. File Photo by Debbie Hill / UPI | License photo

NEW YORK, Jan. 14 (UPI) – Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the previously little-known science behind mRNA technology has become mainstream – and now experts believe that more shots using the approach to a number of diseases are in the cards.

For example, the ability of mRNA vaccines to increase the production of a key protein in skin health could make them a valuable tool in preventing skin cancer, researchers at Oregon State University said Thursday.

And last week, officials with Pfizer-BioNTech, the partnership behind one of the two mRNA vaccines that protect against COVID-19, announced that they will use the approach to develop a vaccine against shingles.

Most people in the United States have probably never heard of mRNA vaccines before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020.

However, researchers have been working on the approach for more than two decades, and many believe it may contain the key to producing vaccines to fight some of the world’s most challenging diseases, from cancer and HIV to influenza and malaria, experts told UPI.

“The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines greatly exceeded expectations and seemed to perform best of all the vaccine types tested, giving reason to believe that mRNA vaccines against other diseases could be just as effective,” Stephen S. Morse, an expert in new infectious diseases, told UPI in an email.

“Another important reason is simplicity – the process is about the same for all mRNA vaccines, so it’s pretty easy to switch as new mRNA vaccines develop,” said Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City.

How mRNA vaccines work

RNA or ribonucleic acid is essential for all life.

Like DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid, which essentially determines the genetic composition of all living organisms, RNA is used by cells for a variety of tasks, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

One of these features is messenger RNA or mRNA, which carries instructions from DNA to cells to make proteins that help with everything from digestion to stimulating the body’s immune response, the institute says.

The COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech contain mRNA designed to train cells in the human body to make specific proteins, called antibodies, that help the immune system fight the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These proteins target the so-called “tip protein” on virus cells, preventing them from replicating and spreading throughout the body, said Dr. Eric Topol, Head of Innovative Research at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, to UPI in a phone call. interview.

The nail protein, which is so named because it protrudes from the surface of coronavirus cells, provides an obvious target for the vaccines, Topol said.

However, researchers only knew about the tip protein due to a previous outbreak of a coronavirus, the SARS outbreak in 2003, so it may take time to identify similar targets for other diseases.

Still, mRNA can essentially be programmed to create other proteins that help fight disease because “it’s such a flexible platform,” Topol said.

“We can develop mRNA, wrap it in a nanoparticle and inject it into the human body to address more pathogens,” he said.

While most vaccines “require culture of the pathogen first, mRNA vaccines require only genetic sequence data,” or the genetic makeup of a virus or disease, Morse added.

“This greatly shortens the time from identification to product,” he said.

Cancer

Researchers at Oregon State University College of Pharmacy, for example, believe that mRNA vaccines can be used to stimulate the production of a protein called TR1, which plays an important role in the skin’s antioxidant network, they said in a study published Tuesday by the Journal of Investigators. Dermatology.

If so, the method could be used to vaccinate against skin cancer, the most common form of the disease in the United States, including melanoma, they said.

This is because these cancers are caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which leads to oxidative stress or an imbalance between the production of cells called free radicals and antioxidant defenses against them, says Oregon State researcher Arup Indra in a press release.

This imbalance in the skin increases a person’s risk of skin cancer, said Indra, professor of pharmaceutical sciences.

Meanwhile, researchers at Duke University are investigating whether mRNA can be used to prevent all types of cancer by teaching the immune system to recognize the genetic mutations that cause the disease before they form.

A vaccine against cancer is not unique.

The human papillomavirus or HPV vaccine helps prevent cervical cancer. The vaccine protects against infection with the virus, which is known to cause cancer.

Prior to the development of the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. The number of cancers has dropped by 20% since the vaccine became available.

Heart failure

mRNA can also be used to increase the production of cells called chimeric antigen receptors-T or CAR-T, which can help repair damage to the heart caused by heart disease, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia said in a study published Tuesday by the journal Science.

Injection of mice with mRNA designed to guide the production of CAR-T reduced fibrosis or tissue damage and restored heart function, they said.

HIV

Researchers at Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute are investigating whether mRNA can be used to speed up the production of antibodies to HIV.

In a review of their research published last year, the researchers noted that about one-third of people infected with the virus develop antibodies against it a year later.

They hope that mRNA can be used to bring that process forward in a few years and prevent infection in the first place.

Flu

Each year, under the auspices of the World Health Organization, researchers determine the formulation of the seasonal flu vaccine based on predictions about which strains of the virus will be in circulation that year.

In a good year, the flu vaccine prevents serious disease from the virus about 60% of the time, according to the CDC.

Alternatively, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and the University of Pennsylvania are investigating whether mRNA can be used to produce a “broad” antibody response that helps the immune system fight all strains of the virus. .

In the mice used in a study they published last summer, mRNA vaccines designed to produce anti-influenza antibodies protected against infection with multiple virus strains.

Malaria

Although the World Health Organization approved the first anti-malarial vaccine in October, the shot only prevents serious disease from the mosquito-borne virus, which affects 500,000 people globally, about 30% of the time.

Part of what makes malaria so deadly is that people can easily be re-infected with the virus due to a protein called PMIF, which kills “memory” T cells – essentially an immune system response that continues to recognize viruses for long periods, according to researchers. at Yale University.

By using another form of RNA, called self-amplifying or saRNA, they hope to create a vaccine that instructs cells in the human body to produce an antibody against PMIF so that the immunity to malaria can live on, says one of the researchers , Dr. Richard Bucala, told UPI in an email.

With saRNA, “the RNA encoding the antigen replicates inside the vaccinated muscle cell,” said Bucala, head of rheumatology, allergy and immunology at the New Haven, Conn.-Based school.

“This is important to produce the cell-mediated immunity needed for a malaria vaccine because antibody-based immunity is inadequate,” he said.

Shingles

Pfizer and BioNTech announced earlier this month plans to collaborate and develop an mRNA vaccine to protect against shingles.

The companies said they plan to use the same antigen and mRNA technologies in their COVID-19 vaccine to create the shingles vaccine, also known as herpes zoster.

The new vaccine would contain mRNA designed to increase the production of antibodies to shingles, similar to how it works with COVID-19, they said.

Given that researchers are well aware of the genetic makeup of herpes zoster, it makes sense to develop an mRNA vaccine against it, said Columbia’s Morse, which is not part of the project.

The future

Many of these mRNA-based vaccines are likely to be several years away from being used, as clinical trials with humans still need to be performed for most of them, Topol said.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it is possible to speed up the development process when needed, he said.

“There are many potential silver lining for this pandemic, believe it or not, and despite all the suffering, the development of mRNA vaccines for a number of diseases is one of them,” Topol said.

The development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 “is the most significant advance in biomedicine, [and] we have become so much better at their development over the last few years that the probability of success is higher “with other diseases,” he said.

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