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The future of mRNA

Published online 8 March 2022

Researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to boost a technology that may hold great promise for a new era of medicine.

Kira Walker

Watch the webinar
Watch the webinar
mRNA technology has become a hot topic following the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of two effective mRNA vaccines. Research teams around the world are now looking to the future and how this technology can treat other diseases.

To discuss the past, present and future of mRNA technology and its promise for biomedical and clinical research, three experts from the Arab region joined a recent webinar hosted by Nature Middle East and moderated by Mohammed Yahia, Nature Portfolio’s executive editor in the Middle East.

Unlike other vaccines, which may put a weakened or inactive form of a virus directly into the body, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a viral protein itself, which in turn triggers an immune response. 

 “People think of the technology as if it was just developed during the pandemic, but that’s not true,” says Menattallah Elserafy, assistant professor at Zewail City of Science and Technology’s Center for Genomics in Egypt. 

mRNA technology is not new. Researchers have been experimenting with it since the 1960s. Clinical trials of cancer vaccines to treat patients using the same mRNA technology have been taking place since at least 2006, explains Elserafy. Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration has granted fast track designation to one trial after it showed success in the treatment of advanced melanoma. 

Other vaccine trials have taken place for breast and brain cancer. “There are lots of interesting trials in place, and lots of researchers around the world are excited about this technology,” says Elserafy.

Researchers are also hoping mRNA vaccines could be used for other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Mohamed Boudjelal, chairman of King Abdullah International Medical Research Center’s (KAIMRC) core facility and drug discovery unit in Saudi Arabia, says the global mRNA-based therapy and vaccine development landscape is very diverse. “I think that mRNA-based therapies and vaccines will become the first line of treatment for many diseases, and are powerful tools to revolutionise the way to cure rare and developing world diseases,” says Boudjelal. 

The public, however, has been more tentative. Misinformation has raised concern that mRNA can alter human DNA, or that this technology may have unknown side effects. Experts concede that safety worries are understandable, because it is a new technology, but think mRNA vaccines are even safer than traditional vaccines since they do not interact with our DNA in any way. Once they enter a human cell they quickly degrade.

Before the full potential of mRNA vaccines can be realised there are many hurdles to overcome, explains Afaf El-Sagheer, a research fellow at Oxford University’s chemistry department in the UK. These include making mRNA in a straightforward and reproducible way, on a large scale, reducing the cost, increasing its stability inside the body and targeting its delivery to different organs, which is currently difficult to do. El-Sagheer says addressing these challenges requires new approaches in chemistry and biology.

Despite the challenges, the future is promising for mRNA now that the world better appreciates its potential, says El-Sagheer. “When we used to go and present our work, people would say ‘why are you doing this?’ Now, no one is asking this question because it is clear how important it is.”