Blog 31 Oct 2023 

From discovery to Nobel Prize: The incredible story of mRNA vaccines

Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on mRNA vaccines. Here’s a bit of history about this groundbreaking technology.

Ben Harrison

Ben Harrison

Marketing Business Partner

mRNA vaccines are a Nobel Prize-winning scientific breakthrough that changed the world. But what exactly are they and how were they discovered?

Before 2020, the fastest time a vaccine had been developed was four years –that was for mumps. Now, it’s less than a year. 

That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic created an urgent need for a vaccine, acting as an accelerant for innovation that resulted in the development of a vaccine in record time. 

However, it wasn’t just the speed of discovery that made these vaccines unique. Instead of containing dead bacteria or viruses, these vaccines contained messenger RNA (mRNA), something that made them quick to produce and, most importantly, easy to modify as the virus mutated.

mRNA vaccine characteristics helped to facilitate the fastest immunisation campaign in history and saved millions of lives around the world. It’s such an important scientific moment, the researchers that contributed to this breakthrough were recently awarded a Nobel prize.

So, what exactly is mRNA and how did it become one of the world’s most influential areas of biomedical research?

Dogged science and key discoveries

The DNA protected within the nucleus of cells carries our genetic code. However, to make proteins that code needs to be translated. That’s the job of mRNA, which carries the genetic information from DNA to a large molecule in the cytoplasm called a ribosome. This reads the mRNA, like a barcode scanner, to produce proteins. 

The lists of Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine and Chemistry are strewn with the names of people who have contributed to our understanding of genetics and how it relates to viruses and their control. 

However, when individuals are lauded with prizes it perhaps gives a simplistic impression of how science happens. The reality is that science is a complicated process, and behind every headline-grabbing breakthrough are a multitude of researchers whose work has contributed but will never be recognised. 

This is particularly true of the science behind the COVID mRNA vaccines. They were built on the discoveries of mRNA and liposomes from the 1960s, and balls of fatty, lipid membranes that in the 1970s were shown could be used to deliver genetic material into cells.

In the late 1980s and early 90s the work advanced further to a point where biologically active mRNA could be produced and then packaged into liposomes for delivery into cells. Once here, it would then make the protein encoded in the mRNA. 

Around this time, one group of scientists began attempts to make an influenza vaccine using mRNA technology. Another group was even able to show that mRNA coding for an influenza virus protein packaged in a liposome could induce an antiviral immune response in mice.

By the end of the Milennium, Pieter Cullis and his group at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, had pioneered the development of lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology. These liposome-like structures have since been further refined and tailored to protect the mRNA molecule, allowing it to be stored for longer, remain stable within the body and enable it to enter cells. 

As the potential of mRNA-based therapeutics began to be realised, scientists from other disciplines also started working on its development. Cancer immunologists explored the use of mRNA to treat cancer, training immune cells to react to cancer markers before reinjecting those cells back into patients. This reignited interest in directly administering mRNA to the body, with promising results in mice.

In the mid-2000s, Karikó and Weissman discovered that by altering part of the RNA code they could get mRNA into cells without triggering a severe immune reaction. Like a trojan horse, it could slip past the innate defenses so that the body didn’t react to the very thing that was developed to protect it. 

Refining the LNP formulation also got it to a point where the technology could be scaled up and used with RNA-based vaccines – crucial in a pandemic response. Eventually, these crucial insights into mRNA modification and LNP formulation would go on to be the foundation for the Moderna and BioNTech/​Pfizer mRNA COVID vaccines. 

As you can see, it has taken over 50 years of research across a variety of disciplines to get us to the point where we can develop a vaccine in record time. mRNA therapeutics have undoubtedly been a great success, but this has not come overnight.

The future of vaccines and therapeutics

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the significant potential of mRNA as a tool for rapid vaccine development. The same technology is now being developed to vaccinate against other viruses, such as a potential universal influenza mRNA vaccine, malaria, HIV, cancer and other severe chronic diseases.

As part of the UK Government Vaccine Taskforce, CPI’s expertise was applied in the efforts to manufacture novel COVID mRNA vaccine candidates. Following on from this success, we are continuing to apply our expertise in this field. Our purpose-built RNA Centre of Excellence is the only dedicated, open-access UK-based centre that is able to develop and manufacture LNP technology for this use. 

We’re so passionate about the promise of RNA-based therapeutics, that we created the RNA Vaccines and Therapeutics Conference, in partnership with Imperial College London and The BioIndustry Association (BIA).

With the mRNA vaccine and therapeutics market predicted to be worth more than $68 billion by 2030, we’re working to ensure that the UK – and its thriving pharmaceutical industry – can continue to play a significant role in this growth. 

Tickets are now available for the RNA Vaccines and Therapeutics Conference — London 2024.

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