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The Financial Express

Wonder of mRNA technology


Wonder of mRNA technology

Research in medical science, especially, when it is an emergency, motivates people from far afield to cooperate and collaborate for developing a treatment to save people. The COVID-19 pandemic created such an emergency so that in less than a year's time a vaccine could be developed against the COVID-19. This will go down in history as an extraordinary feat humanity has achieved in its war against a killer disease. The occasion for such self-praise arises because vaccine development usually takes decades. Even scientists spearheading the mRNA research against COVID-19 did think anything useful would emerge within at least the next five years since the Chinese scientist, Zhang Yongzhen, sequenced the genome of COVID-19 in January 2020 and emailed the findings to other researchers working on it across the globe. The result was earthshaking. Of course, the internet came in handy to circulate the data in a split second worldwide. But what usually accelerates or dampens a new field of research is the fund necessary to start it. The source may be the government, the corporate business, philanthropic bodies or even individuals. There is history of many useful innovations dying a premature death for want of promotional fund. Mention may be made here of the closed circuit steam turbine that the American inventor, Bill Lear, developed in 1968. Though many of his other inventions such as those in the field of aviation saw immediate success, the steam turbine did not. So, his steam-driven car failed to make it to the market as it could not find any patron, perhaps because the automobile industry run by fossil fuel was reigning supreme.

In fact, few people were aware of the mRNA research even in 2019 when a few scientists were working on it purely out of academic interest. But the appearance of the pandemic changed the entire scenario of research in this particular area. As even a layperson already knows what an mRNA vaccine is, few are aware of the real potential it holds. Research on the potential of mRNA, the single stranded RNA (ribonucleic acid) found in cells that carry the genetic information needed to make proteins, had been going on since the 1990s in the biotechnology labs in the US, UK and elsewhere. At that time, scientists were looking for therapies to stop the spread of cancer and create vaccines for other kinds of viral infections like influenza, Ebola and SARS (serious acute respiratory syndrome). And that the undreamt-of support the mRNA research has been able to garner, thanks to the deadly coronavirus pandemic, there should be no shortage of fund now to go ahead with the other areas of research that go with mRNA. Since mRNA provides the cell's protein-making machinery (the cytoplasm) with the information about what protein to make as coded in the DNA, it has obviously opened up unlimited possibilities before medical science, especially in the field of prophylactic therapies. The unknown proteins created, for example, through genetic mutations in malignant tumours are apt to trigger immune response in the body. As it is the case with any other antigen, its ghost can be created like in the case of mRNA vaccines and train body's immune system to destroy the cancerous cells. Using the same principle, now cures for a host of other diseases like cancer, HIV and various tropical diseases such as Zika, herpes, even malaria are being sought from mRNA research. Many outside the field of genetic research fear if the mRNA of the viruses thus put in human body could cause harm to humans by developing actual viruses in the human bodies or otherwise by tinkering with the DNA within the cells. There is no such possibility. In fact, this approach is a hundred per cent safer than the traditional vaccines that use actual viruses though dead or weakened versions of the original viruses. But in mRNA technology, it is only information about the virus obtained from a bit of it. What is more, the mRNA gets degraded soon after its entry into the human body. Actually, initially it was the biggest hurdle before the scientists as it proved very hard to get mRNA into a cell. It caused severe inflammation and, as usual, was quickly broken down by the natural defence system that includes certain enzymes in the human body. So scientists devised a clever strategy of encasing synthetic mRNA within nanoparticles made of lipid or fat and then inserting it into human body that the cells could not recognise. This novel technique, especially, with the help of the perfected lipid delivery technology, was the breakthrough that made the mRNA vaccine revolution possible. Different research groups are now working to develop therapies for cystic fibrosis and multiple sclerosis. Others are researching on therapies to treat pulmonary diseases including asthma.

The prospect of the use of mRNA technology to fight not only viruses, but also every other disease not of viral origin could not come at a better time when the antibiotics are proving ineffective against the various pathogenic bacteria. Also, it may help finding answers to other health disorders that so far defied traditional treatment such as lactose intolerance or high cholesterol level.

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