The emergence of branded pharmaceutical products has been credited to the Second World War, where desperate need for penicillin on the battlefield led the US military to commission large quantities from leading chemical suppliers. In turn, these companies had to fundamentally change their business model – they were no longer simply producing chemicals but finished drugs. This heralded the post-war boom of the pharmaceutical industry.
It is hardly surprising that the pandemic has also proven to be a catalyst for drug innovation in the biotech industry. In particular, the use of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine technology, which scientists have been working on for decades, has come of age during the pandemic. When the US Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on 11 December 2020 and the Moderna mRNA vaccine on 18 December, these were the first mRNA vaccines approved for humans.
Unlike conventional vaccines, which trigger an immune response by introducing a harmless bacteria or virus into the body, mRNA works at a cellular level. It is a single-stranded molecule that carries genetic code from DNA to the part of a cell that produces protein. In the words of mRNA pioneers, Moderna, ‘an mRNA teaches the body how to make a specific protein that can help the immune system prevent or treat certain diseases.’ In the case of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines instruct cells in the body to mimic the virus’ protein. This triggers a protective immune response.
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel uses the analogy of a computer operating system when explaining how mRNA technology can be applied to different disease areas, ‘Since mRNA is an information-based platform, it works similar to a computer’s operating system, letting researchers insert new genetic code from a virus – like adding an app – to create a new vaccine quickly.’ Like sharing a software update, an mRNA lab can sequence the proteins of an antigen and share this information instantaneously with other labs around the world.
The efficacy of mRNA vaccines has owed much to parallel developments with lipids, described as the unsung COVID-19 vaccine component. Lipids prevent the mRNA from degrading quickly in the body and without them mRNA vaccines would not work.
On the back of mRNA’s high-profile use in combatting COVID-19, the biotech industry is accelerating the use of the technology to address long-standing challenges, for example, Sanofi talks about its application to ‘cancer, immune-mediated diseases, and rare diseases.’ Derrick Rossi, a stem-cell biologist and co-founder of Moderna, has suggested its application to 6,000 genetic diseases.mRNA drugs are already in the pipeline for influenza, cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart disease, pulmonary disease and infectious diseases, such as Zika and HIV, although as one expert cautions, ‘cancer is a lot more complicated than COVID.’[SS1] Other scientists are exploring the application of mRNA to autoimmune diseases, high cholesterol and as a solution to antibiotic resistance.
Amidst the understandable excitement about mRNA, we do need to remind ourselves that it is less than 18 months since the technology was first used on a mass scale in humans. This means that we do not yet know the length of the immunity it provides or have a complete picture of any side effects. The novelty of mRNA has also triggered conspiracy theories, including suggestions that they make people infertile, magnetic or that they include a microchip as part of a secret government plot to keep track of its citizens. As the technology becomes more established, fewer people will be taken in by these fantastical claims, although they serve as a reminder of the importance of educating and bringing the science to life for the wider public.
 Keefe PA. Empire of pain: the secret history of the Sackler dynasty. Bond Street Books, 2021.
 Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02483-w. Accessed May 2022.
 Moderna. https://www.modernatx.com/power-of-mrna/science-of-mrna. Accessed May 2022.
 A talk with CEO Stéphane Bancel. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/life-sciences/our-insights/modernas-path-to-vaccine-innovation-a-talk-with-ceo-stephane-bancel. Accessed May 2022.
 Chemical & Engineering News. https://cen.acs.org/business/outsourcing/Lipids-unsung-COVID-19-vaccine/99/web/2021/02. Accessed May 2022.
 Sanofi. https://www.sanofi.com/en/science-and-innovation/research-and-development/technology-platforms/mrna-technology-platform/ Accessed May 2022.
 Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2021-12-07/after-covid-what-s-next-for-mrna-technology. Accessed May 2022.
 BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211122-could-mrna-make-us-superhuman. Accessed May 2022.