The Pandemic Legacy and mRNA Vaccine Technology: Vaccines for HIV and Cancer

Illustrated by Jennifer Broza

As COVID-19 emerged as a global humanitarian threat, many pharmaceutical companies entered the race for the development of a vaccine. Consequently, we have witnessed the widespread application of mRNA vaccine technology, given its notable advantages over DNA-based vaccine technology in quicker manufacturing and production times [3]. While mRNA technology has existed for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportune moment for the efficient development and application of this vaccine technology, as seen by the rapid rollout of Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech vaccines [3]. As a result of the focus on mRNA technology to develop COVID-19 vaccines, mRNA research has accelerated clinical research on mRNA vaccine usage for other devastating illnesses, such as cancer and HIV  [5], [6].  

While the development of Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines was the first time many people were introduced to mRNA technology, it has existed in the scientific community for decades. Physician Robert Malone conducted various studies involving mRNA in the late 1980s, leading to his assertion that it would be possible to “treat RNA as a drug” [2]. Despite its long history, vaccine companies did not invest in mRNA vaccine technology until recently because of the widespread belief that it was too expensive and because of the complication that it is highly susceptible to rejection or degradation in the body [2]. In the early 2000s, companies began allocating more money to the study of mRNA, culminating in the injection of the first experiment using a human study subject to better understand the effects of an mRNA vaccine injection [2]. An additional turning point in mRNA technology development was stem cell biologist Derrick Rossi’s discovery that mRNA could manipulate skin cells into virtually an embryonic stem cell, which could then be differentiated to produce muscle tissue [2]. Following this discovery in 2010, many of the larger pharmaceutical companies entered the arena of mRNA research [2]. These developments set the stage for the emergence of mRNA technology as a viable route for vaccine development during the initial COVID-19 global spike.  

On Jan. 27, 2022, Moderna carried out the first human subjects experiment with an HIV mRNA vaccine [6]. This early-stage clinical trial enrolled 56 HIV-negative participants who were given injections at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences [6]. The experimental Moderna HIV vaccine functions by injecting mRNA cellular instructions for manufacturing Env and Gag, two HIV proteins [4]. These proteins instigate an immune response comparable to that of an HIV infection, essentially providing the body with immune support without the possibility of infection [4]. Data from experiments in mice and macaque monkeys illustrated that 58 weeks after injection, all macaques who had been given the vaccine had developed antibodies to provide protection from many HIV strains [4]. The official onset of the Moderna HIV vaccine human trial, along with the promising results of the animal experiments, marked a significant moment in the history of HIV and in the progression towards a cure. As we reflect on the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the significance of moments such as these cannot be undermined or forgotten.  

Beyond its application for HIV, mRNA vaccine technology is also being used to create cancer treatments and potentially personalized vaccines against specific tumors [1]. According to Patrick Ott, physician and director of the Center for Personal Cancer Vaccines at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “The funding and resources that are flowing into mRNA vaccine research will help the drug cancer vaccine field.” The relationship between mRNA technology and cancer vaccines is long-standing, with the first mRNA therapeutics company being founded in 1997 by a cancer immunologist, Eli Gilboa [2]. Although mRNA vaccines for cancer treatments have been tested in small clinical trials for years, no mRNA vaccine targeted towards cancer has reached past phase 2 of a clinical trial and no mRNA cancer vaccine has ever been approved by the US FDA [1], [6]. However, the pandemic has marked a turning point in the broader acceptance of mRNA vaccines by the scientific community, opening doors for the continued research and development of mRNA-based vaccines for cancer [1]



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