The messenger RNA, or mRNA, platform may be new to the global public, but it's a technology that researchers had been betting on for decades. Now those bets are paying off, and not just by turning back a pandemic that killed millions in just a year.
This approach that led to remarkably safe and effective vaccines against a new virus is also showing promise against old enemies such as HIV, and infections that threaten babies and young children, such as respiratory syncytial virus and metapneumovirus. It's being tested as a treatment for cancers, including melanoma and brain tumors. It might offer a new way to treat autoimmune diseases. And it's also being checked out as a possible alternative to gene therapy for intractable conditions such as sickle cell disease.
Researchers like to use a cookbook analogy. The body's DNA is the cookbook. Messenger RNA is a copy of the recipe -- one that disappears quickly. In the case of genetic disease, it can be used to instruct cells to make a healthy copy of a protein. In the case of mRNA vaccines, it's used to tell cells to make what looks like a piece of virus, so the body produces antibodies and special immune system cells in response.
Kariko was unable to drum up much interest in this idea for years. But for the past 15 years or so, she's teamed up with ...