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Vaccines have been an important tool in the fight against COVID-19. But it wasn’t just the traditional sort of vaccine that came to help — it was a different kind of vaccine made from messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA. While the vaccines for COVID-19 were the first to successfully use this technology, mRNA is not new. Scientists have been studying mRNA in medicine for decades, and this technology may serve as a valuable tool in the treatment toolbox in the coming years.
How Vaccines Work
To best appreciate how helpful mRNA technology can be in the fight against infection, it’s important to first understand how vaccines work. Ultimately, the goal is to build immunity — an immune response that helps protect us against disease. Vaccines build immunity by teaching our bodies how to fight off invading bacteria or viruses. Traditional vaccines do this by introducing a weakened form of the potential invader into the body, while mRNA vaccines make pieces of bacteria or viruses internally by taking advantage of how our cells work naturally. mRNA vaccines themselves do not contain any of the actual virus or bacteria.
Our cells are like a microscopic kitchen that cooks up an elaborate menu of thousands of different proteins, which form our entire bodies and help keep us alive. An mRNA vaccine delivers instructions that act like a special recipe, directing the kitchen to temporarily add your meal — or in this case, a small protein from part of the virus or bacteria — to the menu. The immune system then reacts to that new protein by creating a defense if and when the real invader comes along. mRNA vaccines do not alter a person’s DNA.
The Potential of mRNA
The instructions found in the mRNA vaccine’s recipe can be edited, meaning mRNA can be changed to help defend against different diseases. When creating a vaccine, the mRNA platform may offer advantages over traditional methods, including flexibility, speed, and timing.
Ultimately, mRNA vaccine technology may help us better respond to future epidemics and pandemics as well as now-widespread diseases that may require regular strain updates, like the seasonal flu and COVID-19. Scientists and doctors around the world are excited about the potential future applications of mRNA.
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