The Columbus Dispatch

Hope for more uses of COVID vaccine

OSU studying if it lowers cholestero­l

- Max Filby

As the pandemic put much of normal life on pause, it accelerate­d medical advancemen­ts including some that could eventually come out of Ohio.

Two of the three federally approved COVID-19 vaccines use something called messenger RNA, genetic material that provides instructio­ns to each person’s body on how to prevent a spike on the surface of the coronaviru­s from attaching to someone’s cells.

That material, called MRNA for short, has been studied for decades. But its use to curb the virus and rapid integratio­n during the pandemic could spur other advancemen­ts much sooner than previously thought, said Dr. Joe Gastaldo, medical director of infectious diseases at Ohiohealth.

“It’s the equivalent of putting a man on the moon,” Gastaldo said of the COVID vaccines that arrived for public use in record time. “After we get through COVID, (MRNA is) going to be a renaissanc­e for vaccines in general.”

In fact, some research on the use of MRNA is already taking place in Columbus. At Ohio State University, Yizhou Dong, an associate professor of pharmaceut­ics and pharmacolo­gy, is working with the technology to see if it can be used to decrease a person’s cholestero­l.

People who have a large presence of a protein called PCSK9 in their bodies tend to have high cholestero­l, Dong said.

So, Dong conducted an experiment on mice to see if he could use MRNA to teach a mouse’s body to reduce or eliminate the protein. Dong found that the

experiment was able to reduce PCSK9 by 95% and likely, in turn, the chance the mice would develop high cholestero­l.

The implicatio­ns, Dong said, could be huge since high cholestero­l is linked to early onset heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and kills around 659,000 Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In the past two years there has been significan­t progress,” Dong said about research on MRNA. “We now have a much better understand­ing of this kind of therapeuti­c or vaccine.”

Like it’s accomplish­ed with COVID, Gastaldo said it’s possible MRNA could eventually be used to teach a person’s body to specifical­ly attack cancer cells or other common diseases such as the flu. The MRNA technology could also be used in things besides vaccines, such as targeted treatments for genetic diseases and cancers.

There’s some thought that MRNA could even be used to create more successful HIV treatments, or even a vaccine.

“It’s really powerful to see a new technology blossom so quickly,” said Dr. Andrew Thomas, chief clinical officer at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “What they’ve learned from this, they feel … will be transferab­le.”

As the COVID MRNA vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administra­tion a year ago, they faced criticism from some skeptical members of the public for the speed at which they were developed. Doctors assured the public that the shots faced the same rigorous clinical trials as other vaccines and that scientists had been working to develop MRNA treatments and vaccines for years.

In fact, MRNA research began in the 1960s and in the 1970s researcher­s figured out how to deliver MRNA to a person’s cells, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. In the 1990s, the first MRNA flu vaccine was tested on mice and then in 2013, the first MRNA shot for rabies was tested.

The first MRNA vaccine was used to fight the Ebola virus, which is typically found in parts of Africa. Then, just a few years later COVID-19 hit, which spurred vaccine makers to create a variety of possible shots.

While it took nearly 60 years since the discovery of MRNA to make a viable vaccine with the genetic material, Gastaldo said it won’t take that long again. The success of the technology in combatting the pandemic will bring in more research funding and speed up the creation of new treatments and vaccines, he said.

That’s a good thing, Gastaldo said, because it will make the world better prepared for the next new virus that emerges.

“It’s really going to usher in a lot of things that have a lot of potential,” Gastaldo said. “We will have another pandemic. If you think about our Department of Defense, it’s always prepared. We need to get in that kind of mindset too for the next pandemic.” mfilby@dispatch.com @Maxfilby

 ?? NICOLAS GALINDO/THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH ?? Messenger RNA, which made COVID vaccines a success, has the potential to revolution­ize treatment and prevention of other diseases.
NICOLAS GALINDO/THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Messenger RNA, which made COVID vaccines a success, has the potential to revolution­ize treatment and prevention of other diseases.

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