mRNA vaccine development preceded by decades of basic and translational research
In our February 2022 Forum, Louis Mansky, PhD, director of the University’s Institute for Molecular Virology, talked to us about the mRNA technology that enabled the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.
He first went over the basics of cell biology, DNA, RNA, and messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA is a nucleic acid that is a fundamental part of cell functioning. It copies and relays information from one’s DNA and instructs cells to produce the proteins that govern bodily functions.
View a video recording of UMRA's February 2022 Forum with Professor Louis Mansky.
mRNA technology involves the production of mRNA sequences that cells recognize as if they were produced within the body. When introduced into the body, they trigger, in targeted cells, the production of proteins to perform a desired function. In the case of mRNA vaccines, the targeted cells are immune cells. The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines teach the cells to recognize the “spikes” of the coronavirus and produce an immune response to them.
Professor Mansky also talked about the history of mRNA technology. It did not, all of a sudden, “spring full grown from the head of Zeus,” he said. It rests on decades of basic and translational research dating back to the 1960s. And in this history, there were not only fundamental discoveries about cell functioning but also experiments to translate these discoveries into useful therapies.
He showed us a long list of research projects—many of them targeted toward cancer therapies and HIV vaccines—active in 2018, long before COVID-19.
Amazing and spectacular
What was amazing is that this long history of development came to fruition at the exact time when it was most needed, thanks to a large financial investment, and then researchers and engineers came together to solve a myriad of problems to scale it up for mass production.
Mansky confessed that early in 2020 he and his virologist colleagues didn’t think it would all work. It not only worked but did so spectacularly well. The effort was akin to the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moon program, he said.
Getting the vaccine into people’s arms proved more difficult. Mansky noted that suspicion about vaccines goes all the way back to Edward Jenner’s first attempts to inoculate people against smallpox. There are many misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine, including the myth that it will alter a person’s DNA and genetic code. The vaccine can’t do that, Mansky assured us, because mRNA operates only on the cytoplasm on the outside of the cell, not in the nucleus where the DNA resides.
Mansky made a plea for maintaining strong funding for basic research. Developments like the COVID-19 vaccine can’t happen without fundamental discoveries in a variety of disciplines. Funding, and lots of it, helped the COVID effort immensely. Our research should also be forward-looking, he said. We are going to be stuck with COVID and its cousins for a long time, and we should be working on ways to fend off new viruses.
Overall, the session was both enlightening and hopeful. mRNA technology has immense therapeutic potential, and its development showed that the world could still come together to meet a great challenge.
—Ron Matross, UMRA president-elect and Program Committee chair
mRNA technology: fundamentals and possibilities
Tue, February 22 2022, 12pm
Director, Institute for Molecular Virology
University of Minnesota
Event to be held via Zoom.
The word “mRNA” burst into the headlines in 2020 when it became known that messenger RNA technology was enabling the rapid development of vaccines to combat COVID-19. These vaccines have fulfilled their promise, and they are but one of many possible medical applications of this revolutionary technology.
While mRNA vaccines were demonstrating their success in fighting the coronavirus, stories spread on social media claiming all manner of bad side effects and sinister uses of mRNA technology, such as altering an individual’s DNA and genetic makeup.
UMRA’s February 2022 Forum will address the basics of mRNA technology, how it works, and what it can and cannot do. It will also address the wide range of potential medical applications of mRNA technology that are currently under study, including cancer treatment.
Our speaker will be Louis M. Mansky, PhD, professor in the School of Dentistry Department of Diagnostic and Biological Sciences and director of the University’s Institute for Molecular Virology. He is an expert in human virology, virus particle assembly and transmission, antiviral drug target identification, and AIDS research; and the institute he leads is doing important research in these and related areas. Mansky has also been part of the University’s “Ask a U of M Expert” series, addressing vaccine myths and hesitancy.
Please register for this Zoom webinar and join us at 12 noon on Tuesday, February 22, to learn more about the considerable potential of mRNA technology to prevent and treat disease.
—Ron Matross, UMRA president-elect and Program Committee chair
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