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What’s next for mRNA vaccines

What’s next for mRNA vaccines

What's next for mRNA vaccines

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In the same way that we can train our immune system to recognize viral proteins, we could also train them to recognize proteins from cancer cells. In theory, this approach could be totally personalized – scientists could study a specific person’s tumor cells and create a tailor-made treatment that would help that person’s immune system beat the cancer. “It’s a fantastic application of RNA,” says Blakney. “I think there’s huge potential there.”

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Cancer vaccines have been harder to make, in part because there’s often no clear protein target. We can make mRNA for a protein on the outer coat of a virus, like the spike protein on the virus that causes covid-19. But when our own cells form tumors, there’s often no such obvious target, says Karikó.

Cancer cells likely require a different type of immune response than that required to protect against a coronavirus, adds Pardi: “We will have to come up with slightly different mRNA vaccines. Several clinical trials are underway, but “the breakthrough hasn’t happened yet,” he adds.

The next pandemic

Despite their enormous promise, mRNA vaccines are unlikely to prevent or treat all diseases, at least at the current state of technology. For starters, some of these vaccines need to be stored in low-temperature freezers, says Karin Loré, an immunologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. It’s just not an option in some parts of the world.

And some diseases are more of a problem than others. To protect against an infectious disease, a vaccine’s mRNA will need to code for a relevant protein – a key signal that will give the immune system something to recognize and defend against. For some viruses, like covid-19, finding such a protein is quite simple.

But it’s not so easy for others. It might be more difficult to find good targets for vaccines that protect us against bacterial infections, for example, says Blakney. HIV has also been difficult. “They’ve never found this form of protein that induces an immune response that works really well for HIV,” Blakney says.

“I don’t want to give the impression that mRNA vaccines will be the solution to everything,” says Loré. Blakney agrees. “We have seen the effects that these vaccines can [have], and it’s really exciting,” she says. “But I don’t think that, overnight, all vaccines are going to become RNA vaccines.”

Still, there is much to look forward to. In 2023 we can expect a covid-19 vaccine update. And researchers hope that more mRNA vaccines will enter clinics in the near future. “I really hope that in the next two years we will have other approved mRNA vaccines against infectious diseases,” Pardi says.

He plans ahead for the next global outbreak of disease, which may well involve an influenza virus. We don’t know when the next pandemic will hit, “but we have to prepare for it,” he says. “It’s clear that if you start vaccine development in the middle of a pandemic, it’s already too late.”

This story is part of MIT Technology Review’s What’s Next series, where we examine industries, trends, and technologies to give you a first look into the future.

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