You might be forgiven for thinking that synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines are a new technology. After all, the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines are the first authorized vaccines in history to use mRNA technology.
But according to National Public Radio (NPR), this technology has been in the works for more than 30 years, and the future looks brighter than ever.
Unlike traditional vaccines, which use weakened or inactivated viruses or pieces of viruses, synthetic mRNA vaccines act like computer code, teaching cells how to make a protein to trigger an immune response if someone is infected, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The benefits, according to Harvard Health, are numerous. mRNA can be easily made in large amounts in laboratories, and researchers found that mRNA vaccines can actually generate a stronger immune response than many traditional vaccines. And enormous potential exists for preventing other deadly diseases — mRNA vaccines are already being tested for Ebola, Zika virus and influenza. mRNA vaccines may even be used to create vaccines for some cancers.
According to the MIT Technology Review, vaccines for herpes, sickle-cell disease and perhaps even HIV might be on the horizon. mRNA technology might also be used to make complex and expensive gene therapy treatments more affordable and accessible to people around the globe.