The history of medicine is filled with pivotal moments when scientific innovation redefined our approach to disease prevention. Among the most recent and revolutionary discoveries is the advent of mRNA vaccines, a leap forward in the field of preventive medicine.
This innovation, which recently awarded its pioneers the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine, has proven to be an unprecedented response to global challenges, chief among them the Covid-19 pandemic.
Today, mRNA vaccines are an established reality in the medical landscape; however, it is essential to understand that their success is the result of decades of theoretical research and scientific insight.
Past: genesis of a revolutionary technology
The origin of this revolutionary technology has its roots in the 1960s, when scientists at King’s College in Cambridge identified the molecule that acts as a conduit between DNA and cellular structures capable of protein manufacture: mRNA.
However, isolating mRNA remained an enigma until 1984, when biologist Doug Melton succeeded in replicating it in the laboratory. In those years, biochemist Katlin Karikò began to explore the potential of synthetic mRNA, but efforts were hampered by its delicacy and the organism’s tendency to reject it.
The breakthrough came in 2005, when Karikò collaborated with biochemist Drew Weissmann. The two succeeded in evading the adverse immune response, paving the way for a new approach: using mRNA to instruct the body to produce its own viral proteins.
The final piece of the puzzle comes with the findings of Cullis and colleagues, who succeed in creating lipid envelopes that can protect mRNA once it enters the body. All these discoveries lay the groundwork for years to follow.
COVID-19 pandemic: a catalyst for rapid development
The COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity to accelerate the development and testing of mRNA vaccines. Within months, several pharmaceutical companies developed mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, with efficacy levels as high as 95%.
What might seem like an even too sudden development of such a revolutionary technology is actually the result of a process that began years earlier. Clinical trials, for example, were able to get off the ground almost immediately because of the huge investments introduced in past years for HIV research, which were crucial to understanding the spike protein (present on both HIV and SARS-CoV-2).
Present and future of mRNA vaccines
The success of mRNA vaccines in pandemic control has paved the way for new opportunities. One of the future challenges will be the rapid adaptation of mRNA vaccines to emerging virus variants. The inherent flexibility of this technology allows targeted updates to address specific mutations, opening the way for timely responses against new viral threats.
The versatility of mRNA vaccines is not limited to preventing acute viral infections. Scientists are exploring applications for treating chronic diseases such as cancer and autoimmune diseases. The ability to train the immune system to recognize and fight specific abnormal cells or proteins opens up revolutionary scenarios for personalized therapy.
The mRNA vaccine market was worth $11.3 billion in 2022 and is estimated to grow 9.6% to $27.7 billion by 2032. The growing prevalence of infectious diseases and increasing awareness of the importance of vaccination are among the key factors fueling market growth. In addition, government initiatives and research and development activities aimed at creating new vaccines for genetic disorders, autoimmune diseases and different types of cancer will further contribute to the industry’s growth.