CDC how the mRNA vaccine works

A graphic from the CDC that explains how the mRNA vaccine works.

It’s a medical breakthrough that could save millions of lives.

It also scares people.

We’re talking about the use of the messenger RNA technology to create a COVID vaccine in record time. It’s a breakthrough 30 years in the making, but for the public — it seemed to come out of nowhere.

Now, the complexity of the human DNA/RNA system and the science of the mRNA vaccine has muddled the public’s understanding that could have a dramatic impact on a host of other vaccines, said Josh Beck, lead for Gila County Health and Emergency Management Department’s COVID response.

“It’s a game changer,” he said of the technology.

Beck recognizes people are leery.

“What scares people is how fast this came online,” said Beck. “But it’s not new technology.”

The first whispers of the mRNA vaccine technology started more than 30 years ago. It took years of research, experimentation, and innovation to solve all the problems posed by using delicate, customized RNA as a whole new way of designing vaccines.

DNA provides the blueprint for everything a cell does. But it relies on RNA to carry the instructions for individual proteins to the specialized cells that crank out those proteins.

Once scientists understood this relationship, they could use targeted RNA to get those factory cells to produce particular proteins on demand.

The technology seemed potentially useful against viruses, many of which are also made of RNA. Viruses have already evolved to take over cells and turn them into tiny virus factories.

RNA molecules are half of the double helix of DNA. They contain only a fragment of the information of a DNA strand and die off once they have completed their mission. Neither RNA nor viruses can make copies of themselves. They rely on the cell’s DNA to make copies.

In the body, RNA produced by the DNA gives factory cells the blueprint of a protein to produce. In a virus, the RNA prompts the factory cells to churn out viruses.

To trick the cell, the virus acts like a spy, picking the lock of the cell to upload new orders to the DNA to build viruses rather than proteins.

The mRNA technology also tricks the cell. But the carefully modified RNA blueprint in the vaccine tells the factory cells how to make only the spike protein the COVID virus uses to lock onto cells.

The viral protein turned out by the factory cells annoys the body’s immune system so much that it launches antibodies and T and B cells to attack the COVID protein. So when the actual virus arrives — the immune system goes into action much more quickly.

Moreover, thanks to decades of research — scientists have learned to quickly change out the RNA blueprint in the vaccine. This means they can quickly target the vaccine once they have the genetic sequence of the virus they’re attacking. This could provide the means to produce vaccines far more quickly.

“They might start using this technology for the flu vaccine,” said Beck.

The history of mRNA vaccines is longer than you think.

The technology around the vaccine has been around for 30 years.

But until now, the technology was too difficult and too expensive to use as a vaccine or medicine. The RNA molecule is delicate — so it had to be delivered in a microscopic droplet of fat. Designing that droplet, proved challenging.

Now that mRNA vaccines offer protection against COVID, researchers have rushed to take credit for this technology.

First in line is Robert Malone. In 1987, as a graduate student at the Salk Institute in San Diego, Malone mixed RNA messenger strands with drops of fat. He then put a blob of the RNA goop on human cells, and they reacted by producing proteins.

Since then, researchers and pharmaceutical companies have tried to figure out how to use mRNA for therapies.

The main hurdle to using the technology is RNA’s instability and production cost. Still, interest in RNA increased in the 1990s. Companies sought to use it for cancer therapy. By the 2000s researchers tried injecting mRNA directly into mice and discovered it stimulated an immune response.

Then in 2007, two University of Pennsylvania scientists found a way for the mRNA code to get past the cell’s immune system.

That might sound scary, said Beck, but it’s what viruses do when they infect the body.

“The mRNA technology sends a message to that cell to start producing the same protein as the COVID virus does,” he said.

When the body recognizes that protein as foreign, it attacks the mRNA launched protein.

If those antibodies to the protein remain strong, as soon as a COVID virus hits a nasal passage or gets into the lungs, the body quickly squashes it.

But an RNA vaccine wasn’t practical until a Canadian biochemist created the lipid nanoparticles, or fat bubbles, the mRNA needs to float in, in order to not deteriorate.

By the time COVID hit in 2020, several companies were poised to produce the vaccines used today. Instead of growing a virus for a year, all the companies needed was the RNA sequence for COVID protein production.

Beck believes this vaccine technology will prove safer than vaccines that rely on delivering all or part of a modified virus. The current mRNA vaccines create temporary side effects — like soreness, headache and fever — more than many existing vaccines. But this likely stems from the body’s reaction to the nanoparticle delivery system rather than the RNA itself. Scientists are working on refining that system.

Moreover, the RNA remains so delicate that mRNA COVID vaccines require super-cold storage — and can spoil easily. That makes it challenging to use the mRNA vaccines for a global program — given the lack of such cold storage in many areas with less comprehensive medical systems.

Unfortunately, lack of public understanding of the mRNA vaccines has spawned confusion — often amplified by a relative handful of social media sites, which have spread misinformation.

As a result, only about half of the Gila County population has so far been vaccinated with the life-saving vaccine — although COVID has already claimed 45 lives in Gila County.

“The vaccine is our best defense against COVID, now,” said Beck.

Myth or fact: mRNA technology has never been used for a vaccine.

Myth: This is new, and it’s never been used for a vaccine.

Fact: They started working on what mRNA could do in 1978. By 2013, they developed a mRNA vaccine for H1N1. It was never used due to production costs.

Myth or fact: mRNA alters your genes and is not a real vaccine because it does not have virus.

Myth: the mRNA vaccine is gene therapy and alters DNA.

Fact: The mRNA vaccine is a vaccine. It just doesn’t use a whole or part of a virus. Instead, the mRNA vaccine causes the cell to produce protein the COVID virus uses to connect to cells. The immune system recognizes the threat and attacks any protein like the COVID protein.

The two reasons this is a breakthrough are you could pretty quickly take the spike protein from the Delta variant much more quickly than when you’re dealing with a whole virus.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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