The day when the two RNA-based anti-covid-19 vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, were authorized for use was an important moment for us all. Messenger RNA (mRNA) carries information for the construction of proteins in cells. A major obstacle to overcome in designing an RNA-based vaccine is the limitation is mRNA's extreme instability. mRNA tends to degrade quickly (unlike DNA, which is a nucleic acid consisting of a double-strand and is more stable). The production of a vaccine consists of the ability to manufacture at least a small piece of virus that will trigger the immune response in the vaccinated person. However, this is a much more complex process when dealing with RNA.
Recently, a piece of encouraging news report announced the start of the Phase 2 human test of an mRNA vaccine for cancer. The trial was initiated first on a patient with melanoma, a highly aggressive form of cancer, and the patient was vaccinated with a product from the company BioNTech.
Many forms of melanoma, in fact, have tumor cells that express 4 specific antigens NY-ESO-1, MAGE-A3, tyrosinase, and TPTE, which are targeted by the vaccine, making the method highly specific for these melanoma tumor cells.
Because many anti-cancer treatments have systemic effects, the specificity of mRNA vaccines might have considerably fewer side effects. This is the reason why the use of anti-cancer technologies based on the use of RNA has fascinated science for years.
The generation of an mRNA-based vaccine is again the proof that data-driven hypothesis, experimental approaches and international collaborations between scientists are the basis for progress in medicine.