Researchers hope mRNA technology used to make COVID vaccines can treat cancer, HIV, more

mRNA or Messenger RNA technology is largely considered to be a game-changer that is helping to bring this pandemic to a close.

But while the pandemic might be a new reality, mRNA is not a new technology. Vaccine scientists have been tinkering with it, for decades.

The two successful mRNA vaccine rollouts are offering hope that additional breakthroughs might be on the horizon, in illnesses like HIV, Multiple Sclerosis, and even certain kinds of cancers.

But to understand how the technology that is helping to beat back COVID, could provide the upper hand in these other illnesses, one must understand how it all works. 

"Essentially, what mRNA vaccine does, is develop a genetic blueprint to our own cells," says Dr. Neeha Zaidi, an Asst. Prof. of Oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. 

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The mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein or a piece of a protein, that can trigger an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response produces antibodies, engineered without ever having to inject a live virus inside the body. 

"The protein is a recognizable piece… The moment that it sees it…. It knows, okay! Go after that," says Dr. Angelica KottKamp, a vaccine investigator at NYU. 

Dr. Kottkamp helped facilitate some of the covid-19 vaccine trials at NYU’s Vaccine Center.

She believes, beating these other illnesses, boils down the body recognizing the proteins, before it takes over your body.

For a virus like HIV, getting an mRNA vaccine when you are young, could prevent the virus from taking hold. It might stave off the years of maintenance medications, that do a number on the body.

It may also prevent unnecessary death, in parts of the world where aids is still very much an epidemic. 

"I work with a lot of HIV patients who are very grateful for the current therapy," says Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an HIV researcher and Infectious Disease Specialist at Northwell Health, "The current therapy is effective… but all the patients I’m working with would love to be cured of HIV—they would love not to take even a once a day pill… Prevent HIV upfront would be the fulfillment of an unbelievable dream." 

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As of 2018, 38 million people were living with HIV, globally. During that same year, there were roughly 17 million new cancer cases and 9 and a half-million cancer deaths, worldwide.

As of 2020, 2 point 8 million people around the world were living with multiple sclerosis.

That's close to 60 million people, suffering from illnesses,  that might be cured or curtailed, by something as simple as a vaccine. 

"Even if it’s not the answer or cure…the fact that we could slow down the illness and gain more time, or quality of life… Amazing," says Dr. KottKamp. 

To be clear,  at this point, the vaccines are a long way off, but the hard work has begun.

BioNtech, the same company that helped bring the Pfizer Covid vaccine to market, reports it is using mRNA to develop a therapeutic option for MS.

Right now,  it's being tested in mice, but the results are promising.

According to an article posted in the Journal Science, The progression of the illness, slowed, vision improved, muscle weakness was diminished and some spasms stopped. 

BioNTech is also studying the effects mRNA can have in cancer care.

Biontech and Regeneron have teamed up to use mRNA to treat or slow the progression of melanoma. 

BioNTech is also applying it, to colorectal cancer.

That trial, out of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, follows high-risk patients who test positive for having the tumor d-n-a in their body after surgery. 

A team at Scripps Research in California is working on an HIV vaccine, using mRNA.

Back in February,  they announced the results from phase one of their trial. 

The subjects were given this vaccine in an attempt to target stem cells, see if they can be stimulated. In the phase one trial group, 97% of patients had the response that researchers were looking for. 

Perhaps most exciting, is the possibility of a personalized vaccine.

Scientists can quickly engineer a vaccine, that might fight your particular strain of HIV or type of cancer.

Scientists are taking cancer tissue, through a process called sequencing to better understand the alternations in a patient’s genetic makeup. They are then able to quickly design a vaccine, around that genetic composition. 

Most amazing of all might be, the very brightest spot to come from a global pandemic that has killed over 3.5 million people, worldwide, maybe the hope,  the promise, and for some, the restoration of a high-level quality of life, once thought impossible, until Covid.