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'A wave of the future': local biologist explores what's next for mRNA technology

Coronavirus testing came back negative for a person in Livingston County, public health director Jennifer Rodriguez said Tuesday.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Coronavirus testing came back negative for a person in Livingston County, public health director Jennifer Rodriguez said Tuesday.

The recent approval of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has scientists enthusiastic about the future of the messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology used to produce the vaccine. 

For RNA biologists, in particular, the pandemic has become a catalyst for modern medicine.

“It's a big step forward for mRNA-based therapeutics,” said UR Medicine’s director for centers for RNA biology, Dr. Lynne Maquat. “We've had a worldwide need. And the need has been met.”

Maquat defines mRNA as the messenger molecule between our DNA, and the proteins that our cells need to perform their duties. She says the COVID-19 vaccine produces a piece of the spike protein that surrounds the coronavirus and raises an immune response to it. 

“Our immune system will attack the virus, because the spike protein is on the outside of the virus,” said Maquat.

She says the success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is causing scientists to look at other illnesses that could benefit from the mRNA technology like dengue.

“There's lots of infectious diseases, especially in Third World countries that need to be addressed,” Maquat said.

UR Medicine infectious disease specialist Dr. Edward Walsh says existing vaccines can also benefit from messenger RNA.

“If an mRNA vaccine for the influenza vaccine could reach the kind of efficacy data, especially over a six-month period, we really only need to get protection for about six months through the flu season each year,” Walsh said.

He said the flu vaccine is roughly 60% effective, but mRNA technology could increase that...

“If we could get that very high degree of efficacy, it could really do a lot of public health good,” said Walsh.

Maquat said she and her team are already looking at how some cancers could be treated with messenger RNA technology

“Let's say you have a pancreatic cancer,” said Maquat, “you could have your tumor removed, and you can have it characterized for new proteins.”

The new discovered proteins in the tumor would allow scientists to develop an mRNA treatment to combat that protein.

“It's a type of personalized medicine,” said Maquat. "This is a wave of the future"

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.