On October 2, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman jointly received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology 2023 for their discoveries of how mRNA interacts with the immune system, which ultimately laid the foundation for vaccines against Covid-19. While you might remember mRNA technology as the basis for the rapid development and deployment of Covid-19 vaccines, this technology has been in development for decades. The pair, a biochemist and physician, respectively, began collaborating as colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, examining how different types of RNA interact with the immune system.
Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a type of molecule whose primary role is as the genetic blueprint for building proteins for our cells. Vaccines that utilize mRNA technology contain a small piece of mRNA that matches the targeted virus’ protein. For example, the Covid-19 vaccine contains information on SARS-CoV-2’s signature spike protein that studs its exterior. As the vaccine delivers this mRNA into the body, our immune systems recognize it and create antibodies that target these spike proteins.
This vaccine has been administered more than 13 billion times worldwide since its release, according to molecular biology professor at Karolinska Institutet Rickard Sandberg during the press conference that announced the awards. The technology was crucial to lifting much of the world from the throes of the pandemic. But mRNA technology is just beginning. Experts say it could be used to create a more powerful flu vaccine, for one. But it could also form the basis for a new wave of cancer vaccines and treatment. Here’s what’s coming next for mRNA technology.
What’s next for mRNA technology?
mRNA vaccines can be easily tweaked, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic as new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge. Researchers think this could make the technology highly effective against the myriad genetic mutations that can make cancer more likely to occur.
Cancer often begins when the body’s immune system is unable to recognize malignant cells as a threat, allowing these cells to replicate uncontrolled. But once the immune system knows what abnormal cells to watch out for, they can better attack the cancer. Researchers are currently using mRNA technology to create vaccines that would enable our immune systems to recognize cancerous cells before they spread out of control. And because they are easily adjusted, they may be able to keep pace with an evolving tumor. This method is also more precise than applications like chemotherapy, which target rapidly dividing cells; this includes cancer cells but also includes some healthy cells, too.
While mRNA vaccines for cancer are still at least a few years away from the mainstream — they are still in early-stage clinical trials — they hint at the immense potential of this technology, which has been decades in the making.