The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new type of vaccine that had never been approved before: messenger RNA — or mRNA for short — was the technology behind both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Anna Blakney, associate professor at the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering, is looking for ways to make mRNA technology even better.
“The point of a vaccine is to train your immune system to recognize a foreign pathogen — a virus or bacteria — without ever having seen that pathogen,” explains Blakney.
“The way we normally train your immune system is so that it recognizes a protein on the surface of that virus. So for COVID it’s the spike protein on the surface of the virus. We can give it the protein itself, we could give it the inactivated virus, or we could use mRNA technology.”
For emerging infectious diseases, an important feature a vaccine is how quickly it can be manufactured so that vaccination campaigns can ramp up around the world.
“The way that mRNA technology works is that instead of producing the protein in large-scale bioreactors, which requires a lot of time and resources, we’re able to give your cells the code to make the protein themselves,” adds Blakney.
“And so what this means is that it’s a lot easier to manufacture these vaccines and we can scale them up for the billions of people around the world that need vaccines right now in a much more timely fashion.”
Even though mRNA vaccines can be manufactured more quickly than protein-based ones, there still aren’t enough doses to fulfill global demand. Blakney is working on a new type of mRNA that she hopes will lead to faster and more accessible vaccine rollout. Just like how the original mRNA technology uses a patient’s cells like a biological factory, self-amplifying RNA can make more copies of itself in addition to providing the instructions for a protein.
“What this means for us is it requires a much lower dose than a normal messenger RNA vaccine or medicine,” says Blakney.
“Our RNA is on average 100 times more potent than normal messenger RNA like you would find in the approved vaccines. And so as you can imagine, scaling this up is really meaningful and advantageous because if you’re able to get 100 times as many vaccines from the same batch size.”
As a result, there are many benefits to self-amplifying RNA. Vaccines can be made available to more people, faster, at lower cost, and with more equitable distribution.
“That’s one of the things that really motivates me to do this research is that you can really fundamentally change the way that medicines are made and available to people.”