Most vaccines put a weakened or dead virus in your system to trigger an immune response, but this new generation of medical technology is doing something very different.
MINNEAPOLIS – Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are the first approved for humans using a technology called mRNA.
While you’ve probably started hearing about mRNA in the past year or so, it has been studied for much longer than that.
“The mRNA vaccines represent a big step forward, I think, in the study of vaccines,” said Dr. Tim Schacker, associate dean of research at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine.
Why is mRNA vaccine technology so important? First of all, you need to understand how they work.
Most vaccines put a weakened or dead virus into your body, which triggers an immune response.
But mRNA is different. There is no virus in the vaccine. Instead, it works much like an instruction manual, which teaches your body how to build a certain protein found on the virus. In the case of the virus that causes COVID-19, it is the spike protein. This prompts your body to make antibodies without ever getting infected.
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Schacker says the spike protein is the part of the coronavirus that your immune system responds to. Schacker says that in some cases scientists can find the equivalent of this in other virus and basically put the code into the mRNA construct.
“This is a new technology that will make it more straightforward and simpler to design vaccines for other infectious diseases and tumors,” Schacker said.
Schacker says he already knows of groups using this method to work on an HIV vaccine.
“I think that’s probably where the focus will go and I think flu is another target that people are working on,” he said.
Schacker says there are two big advantages of mRNA vaccines. First, they seem to trigger a better immune response, which probably makes them more effective. Second, they are made more efficiently.
“You don’t have to go through a complicated culture process to make the vaccine, like we do with some vaccines. This is done in the lab,” Schacker said. “You take the virus sequence, you encapsulate it into a lipid, and you’re done. You’ve done it.”
So, are we going to start seeing more vaccines submitted for FDA approval faster?
“I think so,” Schacker said. “I think it’s likely, yes.”
Schacker clarified that while future mRNA vaccines could be produced faster, they will still face the standard FDA approval process.
COVID-19 vaccines have received emergency use authorization due to the pandemic.
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