COVID-19 and Medical Advances

The technology that was used in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine could herald more future breakthroughs. The early success of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 has left experts optimistic about the future of the technology. Dozens of clinical trials that evaluate how mRNA can be used to combat different types of cancer are currently underway or already completed.

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Vaccine Development At Unprecedented Speeds

  • Vaccine development is a long and complex process, “often lasting 10 to 15 years and involving a combination of public and private involvement.” Researchers have to employ three phases, starting with animal testing before moving on to testing on humans.
  • The mumps vaccine, for example, was the quickest vaccine to have ever been developed; it, however, took four years, from the collection of viral samples to finally licensing the drug in 1967.
  • However, by early December, the manufacturers of several COVID-19 vaccines had announced excellent results in large trials, with a couple more showing promise. The COVID-19 vaccines were being developed at unprecedented speeds. The two vaccine candidates, one from Pfizer/BioNTech and the other from Moderna were reported to be more than 90% effective. The vaccines also had something else in common — they were both made with messenger RNA (mRNA). 
Vaccine Innovation
  • Dr. William Moss, the Executive Director of The International Vaccine Access Center at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that the rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19 may reshape all existing and future vaccines. According to Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the speed of advance challenges the “whole paradigm of what is possible in vaccine development.”
  • Because of the positive results shown thus far by the mRNA vaccines, many more vaccine makers will likely “develop an interest in the technique.” According to Nick Jackson, the head of programs and technology at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an organization which provides the funding for many COVID-19 vaccines, including Moderna’s, this could herald a new era “for the application of mRNA towards infectious diseases, particularly as rapid response platforms to help deal with outbreaks.”

The Future Of Medicine

  • The two vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are the first ever to use mRNA to generate immunity. Should the two vaccine candidates achieve commercial success, it may signal for a new era in medical science “not just for vaccines, but for cancer treatments, blood disorders, and gene therapy.”
  • Companies such as Moderna and BioNTech have begun applying mRNA technology to “experimental cancer medicines.”
  • Currently, BioNTech is in the process of conducting clinical trials on cancer vaccines for metastatic melanoma, triple-negative breast cancer, and HPV-positive head and neck cancers. Early data published in September 2020 showed promise, suggesting that the mRNA therapy can “generate a lasting immune response, comparable to more expensive methods.”
  • The only apparent downside, thus far, is that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have to be kept at -70°C and -20°C respectively, which is significantly colder when compared to most vaccines, as without extremely cold temperatures, the “mRNA and lipid nanoparticles can lose their integrity.”
  • The apparent success of the vaccine thus far, which is said to be over 90% effective in preventing the disease, demonstrates that the “RNA platform could be used in a similar way in cancer treatments.” A research paper published in August 2020 demonstrated that an RNA vaccine was able to train “the immune system in patients with advanced melanoma to tackle cancerous cells.”
  • BioNTech is also collaborating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “on an mRNA approach against HIV.” Bill Gates had previously emphasized the importance of mRNA vaccines in ending the pandemic “and potentially ones to come in the future.”
  • BioNTech is also doing early research on whether mRNA could be used to “reprogram cells for regenerative medicine.” According to Drew Weissman, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania who had developed the mRNA technology that was used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, mRNA therapy has “enormous potential.” For example, it could “allow doctors to treat genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia with a simple intravenous injection of targeted mRNA therapy.”
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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