A new player in the world of vaccines has emerged, promising faster development, increased adaptability, and a potential revolution in immunization strategies. MRNA vaccines, most notably exemplified by the highly successful COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have garnered significant attention and acclaim in recent years. These vaccines represent a departure from traditional vaccine approaches and have raised the question of whether mRNA vaccines will eventually supplant their predecessors.

As John Rim, the CEO of contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) Samsung Biologics, explained in a recent interview, mRNA vaccine production has made vast strides in recent years and has a bright future ahead, but it’s still in the developing stages in many ways.

“It is true that mRNA vaccines were developed in record time, but clinical trials are still taking up to 10 years to be completed,” Rim said. “[Artificial intelligence] might prove to be the answer to streamline those time lines. Personalized medicine has been in the spotlight for quite some time, with antibodies being considered personal medicine options. But the shift towards completely individualized therapies will take time.”

But Rim and Samsung Biologics are preparing for new developments in mRNA, installing an end-to-end mRNA vaccine production suite last year. As research and development progresses, the company is building the capabilities to help manufacture new mRNA vaccines beyond the currently approved COVID-19 applications.

Advantages of mRNA Vaccine Production

MRNA vaccines offer several distinct advantages over traditional vaccines. One key advantage lies in their easy editability. Unlike traditional vaccines, which often require the cultivation of pathogens or the use of weakened forms of the virus, mRNA vaccines use the body’s own cellular machinery to produce specific viral proteins. By modifying the genetic code of mRNA, scientists can instruct cells to produce targeted proteins that elicit an immune response. This flexibility allows for rapid adaptation to emerging variants or new pathogens, making mRNA vaccines a potent weapon in the fight against evolving diseases.

Another noteworthy advantage of mRNA vaccines is their rapid production time. Traditional vaccine development often requires a lengthy process of growing viral cultures, inactivating or attenuating the virus, and purifying the final product. In contrast, mRNA vaccines can be produced in a matter of weeks once the genetic sequence of the target antigen is known, and, as Rim noted, AI offers a promising approach to quickly identifying these sequences. The accelerated time line of mRNA vaccine production enables a more nimble response to outbreaks or pandemics.

“MRNA-based vaccines and therapeutics are receiving considerable attention,” Samsung Biologics’ Esther Yoo wrote in a recent white paper. “The technology allows for the development of drugs and vaccines with very specific molecular designs and functionalities targeting many different types of disease mechanisms. The nature of mRNA machinery means that these medicines can target intracellular proteins, which have largely been considered to be untreatable using more traditional drugs … Since mRNA is produced using genetic sequence data, it is well suited for personalized medicines. Finally, mRNA-based drugs, unlike traditional ones, may help identify the underlying causes of diseases.”

Challenges and Limitations of mRNA Vaccines

While mRNA vaccines offer exciting possibilities, they also face certain challenges and limitations. One key hurdle lies in the storage and transportation requirements. mRNA is a fragile molecule that degrades quickly unless stored at ultra-low temperatures. This necessitates the use of specialized cold chain infrastructure, which can be a logistical challenge, particularly in resource-limited settings or during emergencies.

Samsung Biologics utilizes cold chain storage technology that can reach temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius in order to prevent the degradation of its mRNA molecules.

Additionally, long-term safety data for mRNA vaccines is still being collected, given their relatively recent introduction. While the authorized mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 have proven to be safe and effective in large-scale clinical trials, ongoing surveillance is essential. Furthermore, the mRNA technology platform is still evolving, and there may be refinements or optimizations needed to improve its performance and safety profile.

Expanding Applications Beyond COVID-19

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, mRNA vaccines hold promise for a range of other infectious diseases and for noninfectious conditions. Due to their adaptable nature, mRNA vaccines can be engineered to target various pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Research is underway to develop mRNA vaccines for diseases such as influenza, Zika virus, malaria, and even certain cancers.

MRNA vaccines could also impact the field of personalized medicine. With the ability to tailor mRNA sequences to individual patients, these vaccines may hold the potential to treat particular types of cancers or genetic disorders. The vaccines are designed to program cells to produce therapeutic proteins or activate the immune system against specific targets, offering a new avenue for precision medicine and the treatment of rare genetic disorders such as Huntington’s disease.

The Future of Vaccination

Will mRNA vaccines eventually supplant traditional vaccines? The answer is complex. While mRNA vaccines have shown exceptional promise, traditional vaccines still possess certain advantages. For instance, inactivated or attenuated vaccines often confer long-lasting immunity with a single or limited number of doses. In some cases, traditional vaccines may also be more cost-effective, simpler to manufacture, and easier to distribute, especially in resource-limited settings.

However, the advent of mRNA vaccines has undeniably ushered in a new era in vaccination. Their easy editability, rapid production times, and potential applications beyond infectious diseases have captured the imagination of scientists and policymakers alike. It’s likely that mRNA vaccines will become an increasingly prominent tool in our immunization arsenal, complementing traditional vaccines rather than completely supplanting them.

By Manali