For decades, researchers like Dr. Anna Blakney, have dreamed about the seemingly endless possibilities of custom-made messenger RNA, or mRNA.
“Scientists didn’t know what RNA vaccines were last year! Now millions of people have gotten them,” said Dr. Anna Blakney, a professor with UBC’s biomedical engineering who studies mRNA, the technology central to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
Now online, Blakney is called the vaccine queen. On TikTok she promotes vaccine literacy, walking people through their vaccine hesitancy, and explaining what exactly mRNA technology is.
So what is, an mRNA vaccine?
“With any vaccine, we’re trying to train your immune system to recognize a certain protein. There are many different ways to introduce that protein to your body, and messenger RNA is one of them,” said Blakney.
“Instead of injecting the protein itself, we just inject messenger RNA which is the code for that protein, so we let your cells produce that protein itself.”
Your body essentially becomes the pharmacy to produce the antibodies in response to just the RNA code of COVID.
And the technology can be used for much more than just COVID-19.
“RNA is really a plug-and-play technology, so you can make any vaccine you want or any therapeutic protein you want with the exact same procedure,” said Dr. Drew Weissman, an immunologist known for laying the groundwork for the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 developed by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna.
Scientists say things like regular flu, HIV, Malaria, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s could all be treated in the future by this mRNA technology.
“mRNA vaccines are likely to revolutionize our ability to vaccinate against a lot of different diseases,” Matthew Miller, a biochemist at McMaster University.
“In the way we can train your immune system to recognize a virus, we can also train your body to recognize a cancerous cell, and then let your immune system tackle the cancer instead,” said Blakney.
Instead of broad-spectrum chemotherapies that kill everything, RNA vaccines could mean the creation of a personalized cancer vaccine.
“It’s a complete game-changer for the cancer vaccine world,” said Dr. Brad Nelson, an immunologist with BC Cancer.
“It means for each cancer patient, you can create a customized vaccine that teaches their immune system how to recognize their tumor.”
It’s a new type of medicine some are even calling the ‘RNA-revolution’.
“It’s mind-blowing…these mRNA vaccines are going to lead to more cures in the future,” said Nelson.
A new tool, we’re only just beginning to understand the potential of.
“It just opens the doors as far as having better medicines, but also more equitable medicines,” said Blakney.
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