In the emergency response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the first vaccines to be released are all based on mRNA technology. Recently, the "double mutation" mutant virus appeared in India, and mRNA vaccine has once again been highlighted due to its short research cycle.

Only a year ago, mRNA was not a scientific term that appealed to the public, and no country had approved any mRNA vaccine. It can be said that mRNA became famous through the first battle against COVID-19. Elon Musk, following his imagination of space exploration and brain-computer interfaces, turned his focus on mRNA technology, thinking that mRNA is like a computer program of the human body, which can be programmed to perform any operation. Faced with such a potential technology, Musk, as a real doer, has announced that Tesla will build an RNA micro-factory for the German-based CureVac company.

Undoubtedly, the introduction of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine is an important medical revolution, but in a sense, the huge attention conceals the significance of mRNA technology beyond the epidemic itself, including the mRNA cancer vaccine.

From the germination in the 1970s to the emergency approval of the vaccine in 2020, the development of mRNA technology has not been smooth. History has witnessed major choices and ups and downs in the careers of scientists, as well as the near bankruptcy of representative companies.

mRNA was discovered as early as the 1960s. If the human body is compared to a machine, then millions of tiny proteins are the parts that keep the machine running, and mRNA ( is the commander-in-chief of them. Therefore, the human cell itself is the most perfect pharmaceutical factory in nature, which can produce any desired protein according to the mRNA instructions, unlike the traditional method that requires a lot of trouble and time-consuming protein expression and purification through in vitro genetic engineering.

Taking the COVID-19 vaccine as an example, after the genome RNA sequence of SARS-CoV-2 is injected into the human body, the process of protein synthesis in vitro is skipped, and the virus protein is directly produced in human cells, making the immune system rehearsed to induce recognition of the virus protein, thereby generating immune memory. When SARS-CoV-2 enters the human body, immune cells are like well-trained soldiers, quickly identifying the virus and launching a precise attack on it.

In theory, mRNA is omnipotent, but the clinical application of mRNA has not been recognized for decades. One main reason is that mRNA is very fragile and easily degraded by RNases that are ubiquitous in the surrounding environment.

The mRNA vaccine is far from limited to the COVID-19 or other viruses. The mRNA cancer vaccines ( currently under development are therapeutic vaccines.

Therapeutic vaccine
Cancer cells carry many specific proteins (antigens) with genetic mutations, which, theoretically, should be recognized and eliminated by the body's own anti-cancer immune cells in time. However, tumor cells have very sophisticated camouflage techniques, pretending to be good people to escape from the immune cells. Therapeutic mRNA vaccines produce a large number of cancer cell antigens by injecting mRNA, exposing these antigens to immune cells. Cancer vaccines have always been a dream. However, after decades of attempts, only a vaccine called Provenge was approved, and later sales were bleak due to high R&D costs and other factors.

The results released in 2017 showed that among the first 13 patients with advanced melanoma who received personalized BioNTech mRNA cancer vaccines, all had an immune response to the vaccine, and 8 had their tumors disappeared and there was no recurrence within 23 months.

Moderna is working with Merck to jointly develop a personalized cancer vaccine. The interim data released in 2020 is also encouraging that among the 10 cases of HPV head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, half of the patients' condition was alleviated.

After about 40 years of exploration, mRNA technology finally ushers in a new chapter, which will gradually venture into more disease fields.

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