Alpbach technology talks: new areas of application of mRNA technology

On average, it takes ten years to develop a vaccine. However, coronavirus vaccines were available within ten months. Development time is often referred to as the “speed of light”.

Development can be based on research

The success of mRNA vaccines against the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus also goes back to decades of preliminary research, says Klaus Sichutik, president of Paul Ehrlich Institute. As far as the protective antigen is concerned, research has already been done on MERS coronaviruses and the original SARS coronavirus, and it has also been found in animal models that spike proteins are well suited to providing protection against infection. Additionally, one can go back to decades of experience with mRNA as a tumor immunotherapy agent.

New mRNA-based vaccines

You can quickly adapt mRNA vaccine technology to new virus variants. This is their big advantage, as Klaus Sichutik emphasizes. Therefore, this technology would be suitable for a seasonal influenza vaccine, which currently requires lead times of several months. “Of course, vaccines with short conversion and production times will have serious advantages.”

In addition, mRNA-based HIV, tuberculosis and malaria vaccines can also be visualized. “However, one should not expect miracles from vaccines,” says the biochemist. Especially with regard to HI virus, there will be significant obstacles due to the special characteristics of the virus. HIV lives in the body for a very long time, which is why cells with latent infection must also be identified and eliminated. It also mutates, which is why good antigen design is necessary. According to Cichutek, it is currently unclear whether a new vaccine technology will make the breakthrough here.

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mRNA in cancer treatment

The mRNA vaccine could also represent a new, complementary form of therapy in cancer treatment, says Klaus Sichutik. The immune system must relearn how to recognize and fight cancer cells. By grafting with mRNA, the protein “blueprint” of the tumor can be transmitted to the body. “Tumour-specific antigens are well-defined and it has already been shown in clinical trials that an immune response against specific cancer cells can be achieved through vaccination.”

However, direct benefit to patients remains to be demonstrated. “We’re all hoping for a breakthrough,” says Institute President Paul Ehrlich. “I’m an optimist, but he’s not here today.”

Use in chronic viral diseases

RNA techniques could also advance the treatment of hepatitis B, a chronic viral infection. “Anyone who carries the virus has a high risk of developing cancer and developing liver failure,” he says. Ulric Praetzer, director of the Institute of Virology at Helmholtz Zentrum München. “Every year, 880,000 people die as a result of hepatitis B infection.”

Similar to cancer, therapeutic vaccination is also conceivable for hepatitis B diseases, as is the use of mRNA in T-cell therapy. T cells are immune cells that the body can produce on its own. Vaccination increases the proliferation and function of these cells.

“And the third application, which is not actually an mRNA application but an RNA application, is to use short RNAs for what we call RNA interference,” the virologist says. While mRNAs play a major role in protein production, these short mRNAs inhibit production. A mechanism that can be used effectively against viruses. “If you can block the protein production of the virus, you block the whole virus,” says Protzer.

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A component of personalized medicine

RNA-based medicine is an important step towards more personalized medicine technology talks Agreed on the Alpbach forum. Its development began nearly 30 years ago, but from today’s perspective, it is not yet clear where it will end up.

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