Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Halting Progress and Happy Accidents: How mRNA Vaccines Were Created

“I said, ‘I’m an RNA scientist. I can do anything with RNA,'” Dr. Kariko recalled telling Dr. Weisman. He asked her: Can you make an HIV vaccine?

“Oh yes, oh yes, I can do it,” Dr. Karikoz said.

Until that time, commercial vaccines carried modified viruses or fragments of them into the body to train the immune system to attack invading microbes. Instead an mRNA vaccine would carry instructions — encoded in the mRNA — that would allow the body’s cells to pump out their own viral proteins. This approach, Dr. Weisman thought, would better mimic a real infection and induce a more robust immune response than conventional vaccines.

It was a modest idea that some scientists thought would work. A molecule as delicate as mRNA seemed an unlikely vaccine candidate. Grant reviewers were also not impressed. His lab had to be run with seed money, which the university gives to new faculty members to start.

Until that time, it was easy to synthesize mRNA in the laboratory to encode any protein. Dr. Weisman and Kariko inserted mRNA molecules into human cells growing in Petri dishes and, as expected, the mRNA instructed the cells to make specific proteins. But when they injected the mRNA into the mice, the animals became sick.

Dr. Weisman said, “Their fur has torn, they bowed, they stopped eating, they stopped running.” “No one knew why.”

For seven years, the pair studied the functioning of mRNA. Countless experiments failed. They kept walking in the dark alley one after the other. Their problem was that the immune system sees the mRNA as a fragment of an invading pathogen and attacks it, destroying the mRNA, making the animal sick.

Eventually he solved the mystery. The researchers found that cells protect their own mRNA with a specific chemical modification. So the scientists tried to make the same changes to the mRNA made in the lab before injecting it into the cells. It worked: The mRNA was taken up by the cells without stimulating an immune response.

Nation World News Desk
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