Starting in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic took more than 7 million lives. To fight this deadly disease, scientists produced the covid vaccine, which was one of the first mRNA vaccines to have ever been introduced to the public. But what are mRNA vaccines, and how is this related to cancer? To answer this, we first need to know about mRNA.
Messenger ribonucleic acid, also known as mRNA, is a type of RNA. Think of it like this: DNA, the genetic material present inside the nucleus, is similar to the blueprint of a building. Each time you want to build a building, you don't bring the whole blueprint; instead, you only copy what you need and use that. This copied version of the DNA is mRNA. It brings the genetic code for a protein transcribed from a cell’s DNA to the place where proteins are made. mRNAs are responsible for everything our body does, from breathing air to eating food, from walking to thinking. mRNA vaccines use this feature to persuade our cells into using their protein-making machinery to create a viral antigen -- from scratch. This turns out to be a huge advantage when you’re dealing with something like a new virus causing a sudden pandemic, like coronavirus. The way that mRNA vaccines work is similar to all vaccines. What they're doing is presenting a protein(s) from a pathogen, and they're causing our bodies to make an immune response against those proteins. Not only this, but mRNA vaccines also don’t require a sample of the virus. As long as you know the DNA or RNA sequence of the virus, you can make the vaccine within weeks or even days prior to the outbreak. That’s what happened with the biotechnology company Moderna. Their vaccine was available for approval within months of the genome of the virus being published online. Taking less than a year from the lab into people's arms, these are the fastest vaccines that have ever been developed.
So how does this relate to curing cancer? Well, mRNA vaccines have shown potential in cancer treatment by harnessing the immune system's ability to recognize and attack cancer cells. By delivering mRNA encoding tumor-associated antigens (TAAs) to antigen-presenting cells, these vaccines can stimulate the immune system to recognize and target cancer cells expressing those TAAs. This approach has the potential to train the immune system to selectively destroy cancer cells while sparing healthy cells, unlike the traditional methods of radiation and chemotherapy. One of the first companies to create the COVID vaccine, BioNTech, has been studying this mRNA technology in cancer for two decades and already has a cancer ‘vaccine’ in phase II clinical trails.
Moderna is also working on personalized cancer vaccines, which are another big advantage of mRNA vaccines. These vaccines are meant to train their immune systems to attack the specific cancer a patient has. All you have to do for these cancer vaccines is directly inject messenger RNA into their tumors. By doing this, they could give instructions telling the tumor cells to self-destruct or have the tumor cells send signals to the immune system, beckoning the immune system to attack. In conclusion, mRNA vaccines are showing great promise on the road to curing cancer. And the best part is, we are simply just tapping into your body’s ability to make its own medicines.
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