2022 could be the year when we find out whether mRNA vaccine technology can be used for a lot more than just making vaccines. The hope is that it can also get our bodies to produce drugs that are otherwise very expensive to make, opening the door to treating a vast number of conditions.
mRNAs are essentially genetically coded recipes that tell cells in our body how to make proteins, the large molecules that form most of the machinery of life. In the case of mRNA vaccines, the mRNAs code for viral proteins that provoke an immune response.
“mRNAs could slash the time and cost of drug development by setting our bodies to work”
When the coronavirus pandemic began, mRNA vaccines were still an experimental technology. There had been only a few small trials and no vaccines had ever been approved. Now, hundreds of millions of people have received the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines, and these have been found to be very safe and effective.
This success has given a big boost to efforts to develop other mRNA vaccines for everything from cancers to herpes. But mRNAs can code for just about any protein, so the same basic technology might also allow us to develop all kinds of treatments.
For instance, cystic fibrosis is often caused by the lack of a protein called CFTR in lung cells. Moderna and another company called Vertex are developing a potential treatment, codenamed VXc-522, that consists of mRNAs coding for the CFTR protein. The idea is to deliver them by inhalation. VXc-522 is currently undergoing safety testing and could enter human trials soon if that goes well.
Moderna is also working with drug firm AstraZeneca on another mRNA therapy, this time to get cells to make a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor. VEGF stimulates the growth of blood vessels, so this treatment, codenamed AZD8601, could be used for everything from wounds that won’t heal to heart disease.
At a conference last November, the companies announced that AZD8601 had proved safe in an initial trial involving injecting it directly into damaged heart muscles during surgery. Larger trials designed to test efficacy can now get under way.
The potential of mRNA drugs is enormous. Many protein-based drugs such as antibodies made outside the body have proved extremely effective – but also extremely expensive. Antibodies have been called magic bullets with a hefty price tag, and the soaring cost of some cancer treatments has been controversial.
mRNAs could slash both development times and costs by setting our bodies to work on the difficult and time-consuming job of manufacturing the required proteins instead.
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