How mRNA technology could be used for other viruses and cancer

HOUSTON – At the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus spread around the world and no one knew how to stop it.

Within nine months, vaccines with mRNA technology were touted as the weapon to fight COVID-19.

It was a solution so effective it stunned medical leaders and scientists.

“It’s a great day for science, a great day for humanity,” said Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, as studies showed their vaccine was 95% effective.

But it is a controversial weapon.

“What works for one pathogen may not work for another,” said Dr. Maria Elena Botazzi, associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital for Vaccine Development.

Botazzi said RNA technology for vaccines is at least a decade old. Before COVID, it was more commonly studied for cancer therapies, including at MD Anderson.

MD Anderson is currently studying mRNA vaccines to determine whether they can be programmed to prevent colon cancer from returning and individualized for each patient’s cancer mutation.


“You can start producing it very quickly in months, not necessarily years,” Botazzi said.

Because of that speed and effectiveness, many believe that we have only seen the beginnings of mRNA vaccines, which could become a go-to treatment for many diseases.

“I would like to be optimistic that RNA technology will continue to exist, and in fact be evaluated, not just on coronaviruses, but even on many other pathogens,” said Dr. botazzi.

How mRNA works

Messenger RNA allows our bodies to create a miniature army that has learned to identify the coronavirus spike protein. So when the real deal comes, your army recognizes that key ID (the spike) and takes down the bad guy.

“Once you have a pathogen code, we can quickly make an RNA code, you know, to mimic that pathogen,” she explained. “Then our body does everything.”

The body already uses messenger RNA.

“It’s not even interacting with our genetic code anymore, and I know a lot of people have questions, right? “Is the RNA going to come in and genetically modify me?” And the answer is very, very unlikely,” Botazzi said.


Haley: Unlikely? Not impossible?

“We haven’t seen anything physiologically plausible that this could happen,” Botazzi said.

Haley: How can there be long-term side effects if the body uses mRNA quickly?

“Once it’s used up and the RNA is decoded into a protein and then of course the protein is presented to our immune system and, you know, it does what it’s supposed to do, you know. What’s left on our cells, which learn to recognize that protein and, you know, the RNA is no longer available,” Botazzi said. “They don’t multiply in our body, you can’t make them in our body anymore. So in the long run it’s going to be really hard to think there’s going to be consequences that really come from the RNA,” Botazzi explained.

We know there are side effects associated with the mRNA vaccines, such as allergic reactions or heart problems, but experts say it happens within a few weeks of the injection and it’s rare.


Being able to program this technology to recognize different diseases could revolutionize healthcare, but the main barrier to that is that it must be kept extremely cold and it is expensive.

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