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Every war leaves scars. Devastated buildings, mass graves, losers, winners, feelings of hate and grief. This is also the case with the coronavirus that has destroyed not only human lives but also professional lives. According to some people, things will never be completely normal again. From now on, the fear of pandemics is constantly hanging over our heads.

Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Wars often lead to technological breakthroughs that in the long run make life better, not worse. Just consider aviation after the two World Wars, space travel during the Cold War. Or even the Eighty Years’ War, which was so important to the Netherlands, and which brought about major innovations in shipbuilding and urban development.

There are also a few other candidates in this fight against COVID-19, such as the proliferation of video calling, online shopping and 3D glasses. Perhaps the most important is a medical revolution involving what is known as the mRNA technique.

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Image: Pfizer

mRNA production is cheaper than the annual flu shot


If you had asked people on the streets last year about mRNA or companies like Biontech, Curevac or Moderna, they would probably all have shrugged their shoulders in ignorant bliss. But now almost everyone is aware of these companies that have given us a couple of effective vaccines within a single year. All thanks to the mRNA technique that has never before been used to develop a drug that is authorised.

A lot of experts expect that the mRNA technique has the potential to deliver a series of major breakthroughs. For example, Curevac, Biontech and Moderna are working on anti-cancer drugs, and drugs for the common flu, rabies and the Zika virus. Particularly in the field of cancer, promising progress was already being made before corona hit.

An additional advantage over conventional vaccines is that the production costs of mRNA are much lower. For example, hundreds of millions of fertilized chicken’s eggs are needed for the annual flu shot; this is much easier when it comes to mRNA.

But developing an mRNA vaccine is, of course, not so simple. The main problem is that there are a whole host of enemies lurking in our bodies that want to prevent an mRNA drug from doing its job.

What is mRNA exactly?

The abbreviation mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid. RNA is a macromolecule that plays an essential role in every living being. It can be seen as the sibling of DNA. Specifically, mRNA has the task of transporting genetic information for protein production to ribosomes, where protein synthesis takes place. Ribosomes read the information contained in mRNA and translate it into a specific amino acid sequence of proteins based on a genetic code. This sequence is ultimately decisive for the character of a protein.

What is being done in the case of these COVID-19 vaccines is that an (innocuous) part of the building code of the virus is given to the mRNA for the so-called Spike protein in the COVID-19 virus. The virus typically uses this Spike protein to attach itself to human cells.

Once the mRNA has reached its target – the ribosomes – the body can start producing virus proteins. In turn, the body’s immune system reacts to these with antibodies. Along with what are known as T-cells, which are responsible for immunity. If all of this is successful, the body then knows how to respond when the real virus enters the body.

Enemies

As soon as the genetic code of a virus is identified, you can start working on a vaccine. However, manipulating mRNA is only one of the hurdles to be cleared. The huge problem for biotechnology companies in recent years has been to safely deliver mRNA to where it needs to be. The body has a great deal of natural defense mechanisms against foreign mRNA.

The greatest surprise in the development of the Moderna and Biontech/Pfizer corona vaccines is that researchers apparently succeeded in protecting the mRNA effectively. They did this by disguising it and providing it with a sort of ‘armor’ that is made up of lipid molecules, a type of fat layer. And if that works so well with corona, then why shouldn’t it work with other diseases?

Combating cancer

When it comes to cancer cells, we are dealing with cells that often fool the human immune system by camouflaging themselves. This allows the tumor to grow unimpeded. In cancer treatment nowadays, the tumor is usually cut away. And in order to prevent remaining tumor cells from reproducing again, patients are subjected to extremely unpleasant chemotherapy.

Hopes are high that the mRNA technology can be used in the future to create cancer vaccines that will then make this dreaded chemotherapy redundant.

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About the author

Author profile picture Maurits Kuypers graduated as a macroeconomist from the University of Amsterdam, specialising in international work. He has been active as a journalist since 1997, first for 10 years on the editorial staff of Het Financieele Dagblad in Amsterdam, then as a freelance correspondent in Berlin and Central Europe. When it comes to technological innovations, he always has an eye for the financial feasibility of a project.