For mRNA, COVID Vaccines Are Just the Beginning
Messenger RNA could transform medicine
Katalin Karikó never intended to make vaccines. For years before the pandemic, the Hungarian-American biochemist had been working to realize the therapeutic potential of mRNA—first trying to create a synthetic version of the messenger molecule that wouldn't trigger the body's inflammatory response, and then, once she and colleague Drew Weissman had achieved that goal, trying to get the medical and scientific community to pay attention.
She had envisioned the technology being used to treat those recovering from heart attacks and strokes. But it was the frantic race for a COVID vaccine that earned Karikó belated global recognition. The work she and her colleagues had done on mRNA provided the foundation for Moderna and BioNTech to quickly develop COVID vaccines that have now saved millions of lives.
Traditional vaccines train the immune system by introducing it to harmless versions of whole viruses—the body learns to recognize the virus’s key features, such as SARS-CoV-2’s infamous spike protein. These new mRNA vaccines found a more elegant way to achieve the same goal, using messenger RNA—a genetic molecule found throughout nature that’s used to transmit information within and between cells—to provide the body with a set of instructions on how to make the spike protein itself, essentially borrowing the body’s internal machinery and turning it into a photocopier.
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