mRNA: The Key to Therapeutics
What is mRNA?
Messenger Ribonucleic Acid, also known as mRNA, is a type of RNA that is involved in protein synthesis. During the transcription process where Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) is unzipped, a single-stranded, complementary strand of RNA is formed. This strand is transported from the nucleus to the cytoplasm, carrying information to encode proteins in complexes called ribosomes.1 Imagining a life without proper protein function is a scary thought, and now, technologies have enabled mRNA to not only maintain proper protein function but to be used to degrade infectious cells in our bodies.
mRNA as Therapeutics
We have long known that mRNA is the complementary strand to the encoding DNA strand, but we have now found ways to form complementary strands to target cells. By synthetic synthesis of biopolymers, the matching mRNA strand can be formed. Once it is optimally placed in the cell, it can form antibodies to fight the harmful cells.
The Covid-19 vaccine was the first mass produced vaccine that used mRNA technologies. Pfizer and Moderna both utilized this technique in which the Covid RNA was identified, complementary strands were formed, and those were reinjected into people as a defense mechanism. These complementary strands expose our bodies to the virus, allowing our body to form antibodies.2
mRNA is highly specific in what it targets in the cell, making it a favorable technique to treat certain forms of cancer. These mRNA strands have tumor antigens specific to the type of cancer in need of treatment.3
Nanoparticles deliver mRNA that encodes for proteins to metabolize peanuts in the liver. Early studies have shown that this technique can reverse current peanut allergies and prevent further ones.4
Why have these technologies taken so long?
The delivery of mRNA is very difficult because it cannot enter a cell on its own. It is composed of charged particles and to enter a cell, particles must get through a highly hydrophobic region (not charged) known as the lipid bilayer. By utilizing lipid nanoparticles3,4, the mRNA is enclosed in a hydrophobic carrier that transports it into the cell. Another difficulty in forming these vaccines is that mRNA is easily degraded so these must be protected to reach its target location.5
Researchers are now looking to see how else mRNA can be used to target diseases like diabetes and other autoimmune diseases4. As with any therapeutic or technology, researchers are finding ways to make the identification, production and distribution of the vaccines more time and cost efficient. The use of mRNA as a therapeutic is a revolutionary scientific discovery and yet, since it is so new, only a few of its applications are known to man. Perhaps this how we will rid disease from our lives or perhaps this technology will lead us to a groundbreaking innovation not pertaining to disease. It is both interesting and overwhelming to think about the power of mRNA, and the more we learn to understand its role in our lives, the more we can improve our own wellbeing as well as that of society at large.
- Vishweshwaraiah YL, Dokholyan NV. mRNA vaccines for cancer immunotherapy. Front Immunol. 2022 Dec 14;13:1029069. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2022.1029069. PMID: 36591226; PMCID: PMC9794995.
- Xu X, Wang X, Liao YP, Luo L, Xia T, Nel AE. Use of a Liver-Targeting Immune-Tolerogenic mRNA Lipid Nanoparticle Platform to Treat Peanut-Induced Anaphylaxis by Single- and Multiple-Epitope Nucleotide Sequence Delivery. ACS Nano. 2023 Mar 14;17(5):4942-4957. doi: 10.1021/acsnano.2c12420. Epub 2023 Feb 28. PMID: 36853930; PMCID: PMC10019335.
- Liu T, Liang Y, Huang L. Development and Delivery Systems of mRNA Vaccines. Front Bioeng Biotechnol. 2021 Jul 27;9:718753. doi: 10.3389/fbioe.2021.718753. Erratum in: Front Bioeng Biotechnol. 2021 Sep 17;9:766764. PMID: 34386486; PMCID: PMC8354200.