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Do the new COVID-19 vaccines use novel technologies, and might these lead to other breakthroughs in desease prevention?

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The current COVID vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna were developed using a novel cellular strategy with mRNA to trigger an immune response. 

Previously, traditional vaccines would weaken viruses, and others would use a critical piece of a virus’s protein coat. However, with the efficacy of the new vaccines being over 90 %, the principle of using mRNA in vaccine development is now considered a valuable option for future vaccines. 

In the scientific community, the success of mRNA has also sparked excitement for its use in other disease processes. For example in cancer, the strategy is to find telltale proteins on a person’s tumor and design mRNA that spurs the immune cells to attack those cells.  

UCSF’s Dr. Jay Levy said that if successful, this mRNA approach will allow patients to receive immunotherapies that are designed and synthesized for their specific cancer (truly personalized medicines). 

To be clear, cancer is harder than infectious diseases, because the target is different for every patient’s cancer, he said. It’s necessary to customize the vaccine for the patient.

There still remains some major technical challenges in that the mRNA is very fragile. In addition, the oily spheres that hold the mRNA are unstable. This means worldwide protection against COVID-19 (or any other disease) is bottlenecked by the difficulty of distribution.

This summary was abstracted from this article in the San Jose Mercury News

Prerana Sangani, MD, December 29,  2020