Featured News

Fighting Fire with Fire

Human Health

mRNA Vaccines Prime the Body’s Immune System 

The use of messenger RNA (mRNA) is driving the next generation of vaccine development. A naturally-occurring molecule in the body’s cells, mRNA carries genetic information from DNA to create various proteins and drive cell functions. When infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus hijacks this cell machinery to make more virus, which then makes us sick. Scientists have borrowed from this approach when designing vaccines to combat the virus—using it to fight fire with fire—or mRNA with mRNA. 

When inoculated with an mRNA vaccine, the mRNA gets taken up by your body’s cells and instructs them to create spike proteins, which are also found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The body recognizes these proteins as foreign and creates antibodies to fight against them. Because the body’s immune system is then familiar with these spike proteins in the vaccine and how to fight against them, it is primed for doing so when encountered with the real virus. 

As the virus replicates, it doesn’t always make exact copies of itself (it doesn’t proofread), which leads to genetic mutations. Sometimes, the virus will mutate enough that the body no longer recognizes it, escaping the body’s immune response prompted by the vaccine. This results in the many variants you have heard about—Delta, Gamma, Omicron, and others—in the past few years.

Research shows that vaccination substantially altered the course of the pandemic, saving as many as 20 million lives globally. Unfortunately, there is still the need to reach underserved populations, as persisting inequities have kept the COVID-19 vaccines from reaching approximately 1/3 of planet’s population.   

To learn more, we spoke with our Dr. Luca Popescu, who is a veterinarian turned global infectious disease expert. His experience includes working with viral and bacterial pathogens like anthrax, influenza, tularemia, and SARS-CoV-2. You can also hear more from him on the history of mRNA vaccines, why they’ve been so critically important to the COVID response and what’s next for their use and support in global health on this episode of MRIGlobal’s “Science Diction” podcast

“The pandemic really pushed the envelope for that necessity to come up with a novel vaccine platform that could be rolled out quickly and effectively and safely.” – Dr. Luca Popescu, MRIGlobal

How were the vaccines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic developed so quickly?

mRNA is actually fairly old technology as far as cutting-edge science is concerned. The first in vivo experiment in mice was done with mRNA in 1990. I think it’s kind of a best kept secret for the past two decades or so. People have been working on it and they’ve done a lot of initial trials and initial efficacy work with a number of different disease states, from cancer to infectious disease.

Before the 2020 pandemic, there were a number of human clinical trials and animal trials with mRNA technology for different diseases. I think it was mostly cancer therapeutics where they basically tested this platform to ensure its safety and at least some initial efficacy in human patients. So, we had that body of knowledge to build on. So once the pandemic hit, they already had those platforms in place. The pandemic really pushed the envelope for that necessity to come up with a novel vaccine platform that could be rolled out quickly and effectively and safely.

Are there improvements to be made to mRNA technology?

I think the existing vaccine applications definitely need to be improved because the breadth and duration of immunity are both not as long as we would want them to be. We saw this with the breakthrough of Omicron on existing immunity. The original vaccine protected against the original Wuhan strain. And then Delta was a little bit less protected, and then with Omicron, we needed a new vaccine. So, if we’re going to keep doing this every couple of years, obviously we’re just going to keep having to produce more and more vaccines. I would really like to see the vaccine delivery and its interaction with the immune system be improved so that the immune response is longer lasting and we don’t need to keep getting vaccinated year after year if the virus doesn’t change. And if the virus does change, which it probably will, you’ll have the ability to trigger a broader immune response so that it can neutralize even novel coronaviruses.

Are there applications for mRNA vaccines beyond COVID?

The fascinating and exciting thing about mRNA is that it’s really a platform technology. So, it’s something that can be used to combat many diseases, and obviously has been used for SARS-CoV-2. But a lot of these exciting new venture capitalist companies have invested a lot of money into a variety of other diseases, from cancer to genetic diseases.

I think the use of mRNA is going to be very important to combat both SARS-CoV-2 and other diseases, especially infectious diseases and vector-borne diseases like West Nile and yellow fever and definitely malaria. That is the major one that’s killed billions of people over the course of human history and continues to do so. Obviously, it is in much of the global south and one that we haven’t really developed a vaccine for because there are so many different Plasmodium strains and so many strains of the parasite that causes malaria. They mutate all the time, and they’re very hard to study. So having a vaccine platform like mRNA that’s very quick and nimble and able to be adapted is definitely something that would benefit the malaria response.


Contact MRIGlobal to further understand our work in infectious diseases. We offer a broad portfolio of infectious disease testing assays and capabilities across diagnostic disciplines, from screening and diagnosis to genotyping, therapy, and monitoring. Those seeking analysis of infectious disease tests can trust in our breadth of experience and knowledge – not just on the subject matter, but FDA protocols as well. 

To learn more about the work we’ve done or how we can help you, contact us today. If you are part of an agency, business, or academic institution seeking assistance with a project, use our Project Quote Tool to get started. 


Sign up for the MRIGlobal newsletter! It’s the best way to get the latest updates in the world of applied scientific engineering research delivered directly to your inbox.