Sous-chef and Vaccine

The long winter break has introduced a role reversal at home. When my better half takes a break from cooking, I step in. As I was sharing this experience with few families, most ladies complained that the men expect them to play a sous-chef role. They ask them to fetch ingredients, cut, and organize veggies.

When you look into an animal cell, a similar role is played by messenger RNAs (mRNA). The DNAs encode the recipes for making various proteins – the building blocks of our body. In this kitchen, the mRNAs are instructions sent to fetch the ingredients and build the proteins. These mRNAs are mentioned a lot in the news recently.

So, what is unique about this mRNA vaccine?

Scientists have come up with an ingenious idea to use mRNA to build our immunity against the novel Corona Virus. You wonder how an instrument to build our body, is used to fight a virus. They created an mRNA to build a protein present in the virus wall, the infamous spike protein. When the vaccine is injected the mRNA gets into our cells and produces this spike protein. This is picked up by our immune cells and flagged as an intruder. Thus, an immune reaction is triggered. This is the first time; a vaccine developed using this technology has been approved by the FDA.

image credit: Types of RNA: mRNA, rRNA and tRNA by Susha Cheriyedath, M.Sc.

1.    The earlier approach relied on using the inactive virus or portions of a virus. This approach is a hit or miss and carries a higher risk as many building blocks of a virus may be used. Whereas mRNA is designed to build a specific protein in our body and prime our immune system. A more precise approach, with much fewer unknowns.

2.    This vaccine can be developed very quickly. Once you know a protein structure, it acts as a die-cast to create mRNA. Moderna took just two days to come up with the mRNA design after receiving the DNA information of the virus.

3.    As almost any protein can be targeted by an mRNA. This is a generic and scalable technology. In the future, a vaccine or a drug can be developed against cancer based on a signature protein that is present.

4.    This technology leverages the most sophisticated chemical factory i.e., our own body. mRNA is an instruction or a recipe. The chef and pantry are already in our bodies. Our cells have the required knowledge, equipment, and ingredients to make the proteins as per mRNA instructions. Once the proteins are presented to immune cells, it serves as a lookout notice. Our immune system takes care of identifying and destroying this. It is a clever way to use the body to heal itself. 

As soon as the new year arrives, we hear predictions from astrologers to futurists. And 2021 is indeed special, as many changes triggered by COVID are expected to unfold this year and well into the future. I expect mRNA technology will be a major breakthrough technology for the life science industry.

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