'Revolutionary' MRNA based programmable vaccines

5 July 2016

Engineers from MIT have developed a new programmable vaccine, adaptable to a wide range of diseases.

The idea of re-programming messenger RNA to function as a vaccine is not new, but finding a delivery method has often been a problem. By utilising nanoparticles, engineers at MIT say they have developed an MRNA based vaccine which is not only safe, but reprogrammable, meaning it could be used to fight a wide range of infectious diseases. Testing of the vaccine on mice was 100% effective in fighting Ebola, H1N1 and Toxoplasma gondii a malarial relative. 

Traditional vaccines usually work by injecting the host with an inert form of the virus, teaching the body to recognise and fight it. 

The new vaccine works differently: MRNA within the vaccine encodes a pathogenic protein which, once it enters the body’s cells, induces swift mass-production of that protein, kickstarting the immune system into action. The MRNA itself is contained within a nanoparticle derived from a dendrimer molecule. When positively charged, dendrimers form close associations with RNA. In addition, the dedrimer-RNA structure can be manipulated to be a similar size to the virus it is targeting. Taken together, these factors facilitate delivery of the vaccine into cells.

By utilising an RNA based approach, the vaccine itself is flexible; pathogenic proteins can be encoded into the RNA to swiftly create a new vaccine - a significant benefit when dealing with an outbreak. Daniel Anderson, a senior author of the paper says the ‘approach allows us to make vaccines against new diseases in only seven days’. Co-author, Hidde Ploegh, comments that the vaccine ‘is an important addition to currently available vaccine strategies’ but urges further investigation into safety and cost.

The research ers are now working on a cancer vaccine using this approach.

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