How mRNA technology is altering vaccine treatments

Author: CBS NEWS
Published: Updated:
Moderna vaccine doses stored in a refrigerator. Credit: WINK News

Back in January, just one month after Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for emergency use, fears about a contagious variant strain began to grip the nation – and scientists at Moderna immediately realized this could be a threat.

“We didn’t think we had time to wait,” said Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of the company. “We thought, ‘If we don’t start now, then by the time we get to the fall, we won’t have an updated vaccine in case those variants really become a significant concern and start reinfecting people.”

As millions of doses rolled off the manufacturing line at their facility in Norwood, Mass., Hoge’s team got to work to re-tool the vaccine.

National Public Radio correspondent Allison Aubrey asked, “And within a week, you had designed a new vaccine?”

“We designed that vaccine really overnight, and started manufacturing, and had it, and moved it into clinical trials within a month,” he replied.

It can take years to make a new vaccine, so this was a breakthrough. “How is that possible?” Aubrey asked.

“Well, it has to do with our technology,” said Hoge. “We use something called messenger RNA, or mRNA for short. It’s really just an instruction molecule, kind of like a software program for your cells. It just sends instructions about what the virus looks like to your immune system. So just like a software program, or a Word document, we can simply edit something, change it, and then manufacture it very, very quickly.”

He makes it sound so easy, but it’s taken more than a decade of research, and many technological hurdles. Now, the company has some big plans. “We’ve had an incredible year using messenger RNA to fight a pandemic,” Hoge said. “But we think we’re just starting in the infectious disease space, And so, there’s a large number of other vaccines we’re bringing forward.”

Moderna’s research pipeline includes everything from an HIV vaccine, to heart disease treatments, to vaccines for different kinds of cancer, including lymphoma and melanoma.

Connie Franciosi is already participating in one clinical trial. Diagnosed with melanoma in May 2020, she’s a two-time cancer survivor. And after surgery to remove the melanoma, her doctor had some troubling news: “He did indicate that they had found melanoma cells in my lymph nodes, which meant that I would need to have further treatment,” Franciosi said.

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