Beckman Center hosts renowned scientists for mRNA vaccine research | new university
Eight world-renowned scientists known for their contributions to the development of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines gathered for a panel at the Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences & Engineering to discuss the future of the technology and what it took to get there on Friday April 29th.
“The success of the COVID vaccine is the result of the conference of two technologies: synthesized mRNA and lipid nanoparticles,” the event organizers said.
mRNA is the code inside cells that allows our DNA to be translated into essential proteins, while lipid nanoparticles are small molecules of fat that can coat foreign mRNA to better push it into our cells.
The scientists on the panel were responsible for the technologies that created the mRNA vaccines. Dr. Pieter Cullis, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia, studies ionizable lipids that enable efficient delivery of mRNA code into cells. Dr. Ian MacLachlan, founder of Protiva Biotherapeutics, pioneered the use of lipid nanoparticles for messenger RNA delivery in COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Drew Weissman, Professor of Medicine and Director of Vaccine Research in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has developed technology that provides stable mRNA. Dr. Barney S. Graham, former deputy director of vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has developed a mutation method to stabilize vaccine targets. Dr. Jason McLellan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, collaborated with Dr. Graham to target stabilized spike proteins.
Before the recent advent of mRNA vaccines, vaccines against diseases such as influenza, chickenpox, and measles were made from killed pathogens or weakened live pathogens. Pathogens are foreign invaders in the human body that can cause disease. Killed pathogens activate your immune system against the pathogen when the immune system recognizes it as a foreign body. Weakened pathogen vaccines, or attenuated vaccines, are made by introducing human disease into an animal where the pathogen will evolve to work better in non-human populations. When the virus or bacteria is put into vaccines, it is no longer optimized for humans and it is much easier for our immune system to defend against it. These vaccines can present unique manufacturing issues due to the way they are produced. mRNA vaccines have sought to address these issues.
“You need one egg for every dose of flu vaccine. And so you need at least 200 million eggs [per] seasonal vaccine…,” said UCI Director of Vaccine Research and Development, Dr Philip Felgner. “But now we don’t even need a virus… to produce this vaccine. You just need chemicals and some enzymes. It’s a… very big transition in the manufacturing process”
mRNA vaccines work by introducing sections of mRNA that code for proteins found outside pathogens, in this case COVID-19, into our own cells to induce an immune response. The mRNA is taken up by our cells and the viral protein or signaling molecule that is normally found outside the viral cell is produced which causes our immune system to recognize and create antibodies against this pathogen. Antibodies are proteins that our immune system creates in order to identify pathogens and notify different immune cells to fight invaders. Antigens are any foreign body that antibodies can detect. There is no virus, dead or alive, inside these vaccines.
Even before the United States had its first cases of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines were in development. The technology behind the development of the vaccine had been discovered in 2005 and loans were already in place to develop vaccines using this technology.
“We had been working on…coronaviruses with Moderna since 2017…with the plan that we would design the antigens and they would deliver it with mRNA and that would be our pandemic preparedness plan,” McLellan said. “It was a confluence of events that you couldn’t have imagined…it all came together with all the right information and all the right tools from a number of threads…”
These vaccines have saved millions of lives during the pandemic and the technology is expected to save many more, in diseases other than COVID-19.
“We have vaccines for HIV, hepatitis C, malaria, genital herpes, norovirus and a whole bunch of others that are in clinical trials…” Weissman said. “I am very interested in sickle cell treatments because they have enormous potential to treat a truly horrific disease that is very poorly treated these days…. Once we develop this, we will be able to use it to cure many other diseases, so this is the start of a new technology platform.”
Even though progress is being made in the development of new vaccines, the world still faces challenges in the distribution and processing of vaccines. COVID-19 is not over yet as cases rise in China and South Africa, with the appearance of Omicron’s new BA.4 sub-variant.
“Most manufacturers have largely rebuffed opportunities to share technology and know-how and public health-focused licensing, despite having a number of mechanisms in place…” the Organization said. global health. These mechanisms include COVAX, a global vaccine-sharing agreement, but rich countries around the world continue to stockpile vaccines.
[The U.S. government’s] the main concern is treating Americans and using American taxpayers’ money to treat Americans. I don’t think people understand how important it is to vaccinate the whole world because variants will continue to appear depending on how many people are infected,” Weissman said. “So it’s great to vaccinate your population , but until you vaccinate the variants of the world will keep coming…”
Natalie Ringdahl is a STEM intern for the Spring 2022 term. She can be reached at [email protected].
Sierra Howard is a STEM contributing writer. She can be reached at svhoward[email protected].