The production of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines will undoubtedly become a topic in many biological science textbooks. It was a fantastic achievement and could generate a Nobel Prize or two.

If you followed the media on them much, you have heard people talk about how “fast” they were made and how “new” they were. You may have also caught information on how effective and safe they are. Children age 5 to 11 can now receive the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, and booster shots are ready for high-risk groups.

I have written on how they work and covered some of the misinformation spread in our world today. However, one topic I’ve missed is the history behind making the mRNA vaccines. I decided to dig a bit more on this topic and flashback to the days of writing a literature review, which gave me a sinking feeling. I learned a few things along the way and will attempt to condense some of them here.

RNA had been known chemically since the late 1800s, but the discovery of messenger RNA, or mRNA, was first published in 1961. By the mid-1960s, science had cracked the code of mRNA and created a codebook of life. You see, mRNA is the molecule that carries the instructions from DNA to a cell’s ribosomes, where the code would translate into a protein — mRNA was the workhorse that got things done in life.

Cracking the code of life and creating a codebook is perhaps the most significant accomplishment in human history.

By the late 1960s, everything was in place to fully comprehend life on a genetic level and begin controlling it. It was not long before people started thinking about using mRNA to treat diseases. Could we use the code of life as a drug?

By the 1970s, researchers were already using fatty bubbles called liposomes to sneak mRNA codes into cell populations and cause them to make the proteins they directed. The research was done in frogs, mice and a variety of other species. By the mid-1980s, scientists were using the fatty bubbles and mRNA codes to make human cells do as they pleased. The possibilities were endless. Could we add the proper mRNA to these liposomes and begin correcting mountains of genetic disorders? Could we create genetic vaccines?

The foundation of today’s mRNA vaccines dates back to the big hair and parachute pants decade, so not that “new.”

The first mRNA-based vaccines began being tested in the early 1990s. The technology to make them was expensive at the time, like anything with no principal backers or mass production abilities. The technology got better with time, but a couple of hurdles stood in the way. For one, liposomes were not the best for delivering the mRNA cargo, and we needed something more efficient at getting the delicate mRNA into cells. The other hurdle was finding a way to prevent the mRNA from being destroyed by our immune response and have it last a bit longer inside cells to communicate the message effectively. mRNA is a there-and-gone molecule type; it does not last long, even in today’s modified version.

As we started the new millennia, a new delivery system, lipid nanoparticles, emerged and gained a scalable production ability in 2005. In that same year, a simple modification to a uridine nucleotide protected mRNA and helped alleviate any immune response problems that might degrade it too quickly.

To be continued...

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

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