mRNA Technology

What is mRNA?

Messenger RNA (Ribonucleic Acid,) or mRNA is an essential part of our bodies' everyday functioning. It works as the instructions our bodies need to make proteins, the building blocks of all living things. Without it our genetic code would never get used by our bodies, proteins would not be created and ultimately our bodies would not be able to perform its necessary functions.   If DNA is the blueprint for our entire body, then mRNA is just a single instruction from this blueprint, and even as you're reading this trillions of these instructions are being used in your body right now to keep it running [1,2].

Graphic illustrating DNA, RNA and protein

How does an mRNA vaccine work? 

mRNA vaccines allow us to build immunity using our own bodies machinery.  These vaccines, including the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, work by introducing a piece of mRNA that corresponds to a viral protein (spike protein). Once the immune system recognizes the protein is foreign it begins to produce specialized proteins called antibodies that then act as a blueprint on how to fight and protect the body against infection. The mRNA breaks down within days, and never enters the nucleus of the cell, where DNA is held, so it is impossible for it to affect our genes. It is simply used to create a protein and then it is destroyed, like all other mRNAs in our body [2,3,4].  

Is mRNA vaccine technology new? 

No! While the COVID-19 vaccine feels new,  mRNA vaccine technology is due to almost 40 years of scientific breakthroughs! Brilliant scientists from around the world have been won the technology behind these vaccines since the 1980s and they are held to the same rigorous safety and effectiveness standards as all other types of vaccines.  By the time COVID-19 had become a global pandemic, scientists were ready to move swiftly to provide the one thing needed to end a pandemic, vaccines [5,6].  

How do mRNA vaccines compare to conventional vaccines?

mRNA vaccines are the safer, more advanced version of current vaccine technology. Unlike conventional vaccines that use a weakened or inactivated version of a virus, mRNA vaccines only carry the instructions to make a single viral protein.  This provides several benefits.  First, since it only carries the instructions of a single viral protein, it is non-infectious, meaning there is no potential risk to become infected by the vaccine. Second, it is more efficient.  Scientists are able to change the target protein in a way that is easily transported to our cells and more stable. Finally, mRNA vaccines are cheaper, faster and manufactured at larger scales than conventional vaccines.  mRNA is easily manufactured in huge quantities allowing for us to create a rapid response to new emerging diseases [7].  mRNA vaccines should be seen an amazing achievement for humankind!

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  1. Clancy, S. RNA Functions. Nature Education. 20081(1):102. '
  2. Scitable. Nature. Gene Expression. Accessed Aug 27, 2021. 
  3. Nebraska Medicine. How long do mRNA and spike proteins last in the body? July 2, 2021. 
  4. MU Health Care. What You Need to Know About the mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines.  Accessed Aug 27, 2021. 
  5. COVID-19 Real Time Learning Network. Vaccines FAQ. August 24, 2021. 
  6. Canadian Institute of Health Research. The long road to mRNA vaccines. July 30, 2021. 
  7. Nahm, M. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines: How could anything developed this quickly be safe? University of Alabama at Birmingham. May 25, 2021.
  8. Pardi, N., Hogan, M., Porter, F. et al. mRNA vaccines — a new era in vaccinology. Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2018; 17, 261–279.