Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the majority of UK companies employed an on-site workforce to conduct the day-to-day running of their business, with only 27% of employees having worked from home at some point in 2019, on average.
Although research into the action of mRNA had been ongoing since the early 1960s, with the potential for therapeutic purposes being investigated the following century, such therapies were a niche part of the R&D pipeline.
Now, with demand growing for personalised medications and proof that mRNA therapies can be produced on a large scale for a competitive price, more and more pharmaceutical companies are looking to get involved with the next big thing.
Benefits of mRNA medicinesFortunately, the premise of mRNA technology is fairly straightforward. Although simplistic in design, however, mRNA technology has significantly higher curative potential than conventional small molecule and monoclonal antibodies.
Compared with traditional approaches, mRNA therapies can offer a quick development-manufacturing-scaling-up cycle. Plus, the approval of two mRNA Covid-19 vaccines has served as a validation for the technology, which is now more easily accessible to manufacturers.
On the other hand, nucleic acid-based therapies (including mRNA) are typically a lot pricier than conventional treatments. Vaccines produced using RNA require new and expensive technology – not just to manufacture, but also to store.
Drawbacks of mRNA medicines
Because RNA is so fragile, all vaccines made this way require ultra-cold chain storage, which is not only associated with higher prices, but also limits usability in countries with low-and middle-income economies.
The recent surge of interest and investment in mRNA technology has helped to address difficulties in vaccine production that have posed a historical challenge.
Recent developments in mRNA therapy
One such challenge is the delivery mechanism via which the mRNA component reaches the DNA in our cells and directs the process of protein synthesis. Designing the right vehicle is crucial so that the mRNA isn’t rejected by our bodies before it reaches our DNA.
We know one successful mechanism is the tight-packing of mRNA molecules into stable lipid spheres – so-called Lipid Nanoparticles (LNPs). Thanks to the sense of urgency inspired by the Covid pandemic, on top of decades of research and recent advances, LNP delivery mechanisms are now better understood and optimised.
While the circumstances have been less than ideal, the accelerated pace of research inspired by the pandemic has had indirect benefits aside from successful vaccine generation.
Arguments for further targeted research
Global scientific hubs have been connected by a common goal, sharing research and forging alliances, while necessary cooperation between biotechnology and pharmaceutical giants means that the industry is now better placed to manufacture new drugs at scale.
Furthermore, authorisation bodies have had to take an adaptive approach, considering the curative potential of new developments that previously may have been turned down as too risky.
According to biotech firm Ziphius Vaccines, the hurdles to developing viable vaccine candidates are now reduced, as regulatory bodies have shifted their stance to recognise platform validation as crucial for the development of new drugs.
One other boon to mRNA vaccine manufacturers is an increase in investment. On account of greater interest in mRNA technology, the market is expected to grow significantly, reaching almost $5bn by 2025.
Now that mRNA therapies are more widely accepted by the medical community, further applications of the technology are already being considered.
The future of mRNA therapies
Sixty percent of research in the pipeline is focused on oncology therapies for solid tumours such as cancer; most of these therapies are personalised, as cancer presents differently in different patients.
According to Moderna, personalised mRNA vaccines could help the immune system distinguish cancer cells from normal cells, thereby navigating one of the challenges in current oncology treatment.
Other infectious disease-modifying mRNA drugs include antivirals for treating illnesses such as influenza and HIV, as well as treatments for malaria and tuberculosis. Such drugs could potentially be produced on a mass ready-to-use scale, as with the Covid-19 vaccine.
Scientists are also considering mRNA-based metabolic, cardiovascular and respiratory therapies, via which mRNA technology could encode hormones or cytokines in the same way it encodes proteins to elicit an immune response.
SummaryWhichever way you look at it, the future of mRNA therapies is exciting. With the attention the technology has received so far, interest is unlikely to fizzle out any time soon.
While some scientists believe that RNA vaccines are unlikely to replace other kinds of vaccine production, the technology remains vital in the fight against diseases without a current cure.
According to Dr. Simone Blayer, global head of chemistry, manufacturing, and control at PATH’s Centre for Vaccine Innovation and Access:
‘RNA vaccines are really exciting because they allow us to create a new vaccine rapidly —a big advantage for responding to outbreaks of new diseases. We need more pharmacovigilance data… [but] so far, the data is encouraging.’
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