Vaccination will be a critical step in slowing the spread of Covid-19.

Thus far, two vaccine candidates are looking promising, and neither is your typical vaccine. Pfizer and BioNTech are making the vaccine that looks to hit the market first. The effectiveness and safety of this vaccine are looking exceedingly good. Another company, Moderna, is pretty new, founded in 2010. They are also producing a vaccine similar to Pfizer and BioNTech. They report similar effectiveness and safety, but their vaccine does not require the -70C cold storage that the Pfizer vaccine requires.

I encourage you to go to Pfizer’s webpage and read all about its vaccine, but my focus here will be on the new kids on the block and how this “new” mRNA vaccine differs from the old school versions.

Moderna is a company that believes in an idea. The idea itself is not a “new” one, and the science behind it seems almost too easy to be true. The technology needed to make this idea reality is getting better all the time. Moderna looks to be a leader in a field that has the potential to change our lives and planet in nearly infinite ways. So, what are they trying to do? Here is Moderna’s mission statement, quoted directly from its webpage: “Deliver on the promise of mRNA science to create a new generation of transformative medicines for patients.”

Most have heard of DNA and know it to be the code of life on Earth, but what exactly does DNA code for? All DNA ever produces is RNA. For me, RNAs are the more exciting molecules. RNA differs only slightly from DNA chemically, but the jobs they do vary significantly. RNAs carry amino acids to ribosomes for building proteins, they help control the expression of DNA, and they even act as enzymes to run chemical reactions.

The most famous RNA of them all is known as messenger RNA or mRNA. This mRNA is the direct instructions for building any protein in life, including that now-famous spike protein on SARS-CoV-2, which is the key to its success. Proteins are the structural and functional molecules of life. If you control their activity, you control all of life and what better way to control them than controlling the instructions for building them.

In short, Moderna is seeking to control cellular life by regulating the messenger. The potential is nearly endless. Insert mRNA into any cell population, and that cell population will build whatever that mRNA code said. Imagine getting the mRNA code for the proper hemoglobin or chlorine channel into enough cells to cure sickle cell and cystic fibrosis. The mRNA vaccines work by getting your cells to make the virus’s proteins, like the spike protein. You want your immune system ready to recognize and destroy anything with that protein. There is no need to grow tons of viruses in eggs over many months with this modality. Show your immune system the only parts that matter and get both your T and B cell populations ready for it.

Please visit Moderna’s webpage and explore its work. Going from nothing to a safe and effective vaccine for a novel virus in a matter of months is one of the most extraordinary scientific achievements in human history. Manufacturing, education, and delivery challenges await us.

Dr. Jack Brown is the Paris Junior College Science Division chairman. His science articles are published every Sunday.

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