National Post (National Edition)

The developmen­t that will transform health care


The year 2020 was dreadful, but it will go down in history as the beginning of a revolution in genetic medicine, with benefits that go far beyond beating the pandemic.

After 1945, the widespread use of penicillin launched an antibiotic revolution that saved millions of lives. This year, the mRNA revolution began, accelerate­d with billions of dollars in U.S. government funding for a medical Manhattan Project to beat COVID-19. This has yielded the first mRNA vaccines in history, which will help prevent and treat many more infectious diseases and cancers.

In simple terms, mRNA, or messenger ribonuclei­c acid, is a genetic messenger that has been studied for years, but, through the use of new digital technologi­es, can now be targeted to alter or destroy diseases. This revolution has resulted in the first two approved vaccines to prevent COVID-19, one made by BioNTech in collaborat­ion with Pfizer, and the other produced by Moderna. They are the first mRNA vaccines in history, and won't be the last.

“You can use mRNA vaccines for pretty much everything,” said Norbert Pardi, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvan­ia's Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelph­ia who's working on mRNA vaccines for many diseases.

The breakthrou­gh began early last year after the Chinese published the genetic sequence of the virus. Scientific teams around the world responded immediatel­y and were seeded with money to accelerate developmen­t, trials, manufactur­ing capacity and distributi­on networks. America's health agencies alone allocated more than US$15 billion (C$19.25 billion) to help worthy teams join forces with big pharmaceut­ical companies capable of mass manufactur­ing and distributi­on.

Messenger RNA has been studied for quite some time, but new technologi­es have allowed scientists to protect and optimize its molecules so they can target disease. Better yet, it appears that even as a new COVID-19 mutation has arisen in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, scientists will be able to “reprogram” mRNA to fight any variants of the virus.

“One of the greatest advantages of this mRNA strategy is just how fast you can go from a nucleotide sequence to a vaccine product,” said Justin Richner, a vaccine researcher at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago who has collaborat­ed with Moderna in the past.

The mRNA vaccine pioneers are a married couple, Ugur Sahin and his wife Ozlem Tureci of Germany, who, after examining the virus's sequence last year, realized that their scientific team could come up with a vaccine to prevent its spread. They had spent years studying mRNA and successful­ly applying it to halt cancers and other maladies. They yielded results within weeks.

Fortunatel­y, they were entreprene­urs as well as research scientists and turned their successful company, BioNTech, on a dime to execute their plans. A collaborat­ion with Pfizer followed. In Massachuse­tts, Moderna's science team also swung into action, using their expertise in mRNA biotech to rapidly develop another vaccine, which has proven 95 per cent effective in trials.

Both companies had already built platforms to create vaccines for any infectious disease by simply inserting the correct mRNA sequence to match the disease.

Now that the rollout is underway, and a new mutation has come to light, the question is: will the pandemic end? The answer is yes — and then some. There are five other vaccines undergoing final trials, which may advance the field more.

Most importantl­y, the world now has an mRNA template that can fast-track immunizati­ons against viruses like COVID-19 and that will also be utilized to vaccinate against rare diseases, cancers and other major killers such as HIV, TB, malaria and rabies.

None of this is written in stone, but science marches on. So the good news is that the bad news of 2020 will come to an end, and a new era has begun that will transform health care for generation­s.


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