Skip to main content
Move the World.
RNA Vaccines Could Change Everything in the Fight Against Disease

Despite the rumblings of the anti-vaccination movement, vaccines are a crucial and effective weapon in the war on infectious disease. Armed with vaccines, polio and measles were brought to heel, and smallpox, among the most catastrophic diseases in human history, was wiped from the face of the earth, save two freezers.

Faster, cheaper, and safer, RNA vaccines show great potential to meet evolving threats.

But important as they are, vaccines have weaknesses. Against the new emerging viruses — dreaded pathogens like Ebola, Marburg, and Zika — and the difficult-to-pin-down influenza, traditional methods of vaccination have come up against difficult challenges. They can also be expensive and time-consuming to produce, curtailing efforts to control outbreaks or head off a flu season caused by an unexpected strain.

A newer type of vaccines, using RNA, could alleviate these issues. Faster, cheaper, and safer, RNA vaccines show great potential to meet evolving threats.

How do Vaccines Work?

How vaccines work is fairly simple. When the immune system is exposed to a disease-causing agent — a pathogen — it creates antibodies. These large, y-shaped proteins jam themselves onto the attacking pathogens, disabling them or marking them for death by the various defenses of the immune system, like the cell-devouring macrophage. Once the antibodies have been created, the immune system will recognize the pathogen if it infects the body again.

The dangerous nature of these viruses requires specially equipped labs to study them.

Vaccines work by causing the immune system to create antibodies before it comes into contact with the real pathogen. This makes vaccination unique in that it is preventative in nature: it effectively stops the disease before it even begins by setting the alarm. Vaccines achieve this by using antigens — the protein signature of a pathogen, which triggers the immune response — to kickstart antibody creation.

This works pretty well if scientists know what they’re guarding against. But emerging diseases may never have been seen before by science, so a basic lack of knowledge hamstrings new vaccine production. The dangerous nature of these viruses requires specially equipped labs to study them, which creates a bottleneck in gathering that knowledge.

RNA Vaccines may be faster, cheaper, and safer than traditional vaccines. Photo by Numbstocker/Shutterstock

RNA Vaccines may be faster, cheaper, and safer than traditional vaccines. Photo by Numbstocker/Shutterstock

After the basic research is done, producing a vaccine’s unique antigens and ingredients at scale requires a huge investment in a specialized facility, which usually takes years to build. The challenges in working with the viruses make growing a large culture of them difficult, and the financial rewards are often minimal at best.

Even well-known viruses can give vaccination fits. Influenza is the Loki of the virus world, able to take many different forms by mixing up the proteins on its outer coat, mutating so rapidly that the antibodies from last year’s flu may not recognize the threat.

Before the flu season begins, health officials have to make an educated guess about which types of flu will be most common and produce a vaccine for those strains. If they choose wrong, or you encounter a slightly different type of flu, the vaccine antibodies won’t be as effective. (This is why anti-vaccine movement propaganda on Facebook says the flu shot is “useless.”) Often, by the time we know for sure, it’s too late to make or distribute a new vaccine.

Health officials have to make an educated guess about which types of flu will be most common and produce a vaccine for those strains.

RNA Enters the Fray

Fortunately, there are multiple types of vaccines in development. RNA vaccines use a different method to goose antibody production, but to explain it, we’ll need to brush up on our high school biology (this’ll be quick, promise).

In short: DNA is the genetic blueprint of a cell. To go from the blueprint to construction, the cell uses messenger RNA (mRNA), which is essentially a set of directions, written in genetic code, that tells the cell how to create different proteins.

In a traditional vaccine, the antigens are made in a lab, using inert viruses or their parts and proteins, and then packaged up and distributed to doctors, where you get them in a shot.

Unlike other types of vaccines, RNA vaccines contain mRNA instructions to make the antigens inside the body. The vaccine instructs cells to create the antigen, which in turn gets the immune system to cranking out antibodies. Immunity then follows, just like with a conventional vaccine, and the body is ready to recognize and fight off the real attacker.

This has numerous potential advantages.

The RNA vaccine instructs cells to create the antigen, which in turn gets the immune system cranking out antibodies.

Because mRNA instructions are all written in the same simple genetic code, it can spell out the instructions for making almost any kind of protein antigen, for almost any disease; only the genetic code of the candidate is required. That means RNA vaccines can be mass produced cheaply, quickly, and by standardized methods, which can be easily ramped up in case of a new disease or a surprise flu strain.

That means that a single facility could make different types of vaccines against many different diseases — hugely reducing costs. They also don’t require a stock of pathogens be grown and stored in order to make the antigen ingredients (a time-consuming and expensive process).

RNA vaccines may be safer than other techniques, too. Since they do not contain any elements of the pathogen itself, there is no risk, no matter how minute, of causing infection themselves (a fear leveraged to fuel manufactured, scientifically unsound vaccine controversy) and, unlike DNA vaccines — a similar approach that uses DNA instead — messenger RNA cannot impact the basic genetic code of a cell.

While more testing is needed, results so far suggest that RNA vaccines are effective in providing immunization and have few side effects. The same technique also shows promise in developing vaccines for cancer treatment.

The Cold Water

RNA vaccines do have their drawbacks. Chief among them is the vaccine’s need to be kept cold.

Despite their potential, RNA vaccines do have their drawbacks. Chief among them is the vaccine’s need to be kept cold, an issue with other types of vaccines as well. Having to be refrigerated makes it difficult for vaccines to be deployed where they may be most needed, like in remote areas or the middle of hot zones. This issue does not seem to be insurmountable, though. CureVac, a leading German manufacturer of RNA vaccines, is currently working on solutions that eliminate the need for cold storage.

The delivery method inside the body is another tricky aspect: RNA just floating around is quickly destroyed. To ensure the RNA arrives at the cell, it needs to be packaged into another, larger molecule. Some RNA vaccines use longer strings of mRNA to program the cell to create the antigens multiple times, meaning more immunity from less vaccine. But because they are longer strings of code, they are even more susceptible to degeneration.

Perhaps the most important caveat is time. As a relatively new form of vaccination, continued research and testing will be needed to better understand the benefits, drawbacks, and potential side-effects. Even still, the science so far points to an effective new weapon in the war of infectious disease.

Let's Connect

Up Next

Could Growing Vaccines in Plants Save Lives?
Could Growing Vaccines in Plants Save Lives?
Watch Now
Could Growing Vaccines in Plants Save Lives?
Vaccines for influenza, polio, smallpox, even Ebola have all be grown … in plants.
Watch Now

This flu season has been nasty in large part because the vaccine didn’t work as well as past versions. So scientists like Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre are on the hunt for new ways to make better vaccines and think they might have found one -- by growing them in plants.

Dispatches
Why Don’t Vaccines Work as Well in Poor Countries?
vaccines in third world countries
Dispatches
Why Don’t Vaccines Work as Well in Poor Countries?
Our best tool for preventing disease is the least effective in the places where it's most needed.

Our best tool for preventing disease is the least effective in the places where it's most needed.

Dispatches
Why We Need a Universal Flu Vaccine
Why We Need a Universal Flu Vaccine
Dispatches
Why We Need a Universal Flu Vaccine
Two scientists explain why the flu is still such a problem, a century after it killed 50 million people — and what...
By Ian Setliff and Amyn Murji

Two scientists explain why the flu is still such a problem, a century after it killed 50 million people — and what we can do stop it.

Dope Science
Scientists Want To Study Your At-Home Psychedelic Mushroom Experiences
Psychedelic Mushrooms
Dope Science
Scientists Want To Study Your At-Home Psychedelic Mushroom Experiences
Scientists are looking for people planning to trip on psychedelic mushrooms for a new study focused on people’s “real-world” experiences with psilocybin.

Scientists are looking for people planning to trip on psychedelic mushrooms for a new study focused on people’s “real-world” experiences with psilocybin.

Disaster Response
Google Wants To Make The World’s Largest Earthquake Detector
earthquake detector
Disaster Response
Google Wants To Make The World’s Largest Earthquake Detector
Google wants to create the world’s largest earthquake detector by using the accelerometers of Android phones and city-level location data.

Google wants to create the world’s largest earthquake detector by using the accelerometers of Android phones and city-level location data.

Medical Innovation
Scientists 3D Print a Heart Pump That Can Beat on Its Own
Heart Pump
Medical Innovation
Scientists 3D Print a Heart Pump That Can Beat on Its Own
Scientists 3D print a heart pump capable of beating on its own — and the organoid could have a big impact on heart research.

Scientists 3D print a heart pump capable of beating on its own — and the organoid could have a big impact on heart research.

Public Health
FDA to Begin Testing Chloroquine as Coronavirus Treatment
Chloroquine
Public Health
FDA to Begin Testing Chloroquine as Coronavirus Treatment
The FDA has announced plans to begin testing chloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as a potential treatment for the novel coronavirus behind COVID-19.

The FDA has announced plans to begin testing chloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as a potential treatment for the novel coronavirus behind COVID-19.

Extreme Weather
New Study Into How Tornadoes Form Could Save Lives
how tornadoes form
Extreme Weather
New Study Into How Tornadoes Form Could Save Lives
To improve our understanding of how tornadoes form, researchers involved in the TORUS Project will send tech straight into supercell thunderstorms.

To improve our understanding of how tornadoes form, researchers involved in the TORUS Project will send tech straight into supercell thunderstorms.