COVID-19 proved that mRNA vaccines can work and now researchers are applying the technology to other diseases.
More than half of all Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — many with a messenger RNA vaccine developed by Pfizer or Moderna.
Though the COVID vaccines are new, research on mRNA and mRNA-based vaccines has been happening for decades.
Dr. Scott Joy is an internal medicine specialist and says this technology can be applied to more than just COVID.
"It's interesting to look at the data from the late 90s," Joy said. "When the mRNA vaccines were being studied, the issue was not behind the basic science of why an mRNA vaccine would be effective. It was really about how you create a vehicle to get it into the cell to allow it to do what it needs to do, and that's what the last 20 years have really been about."
Dr. Michael Greenberg is the vice president of Sanofi Pasteur North America — a company that has been developing vaccines for decades.
"We're dedicating hundreds of employees — both in the U.S. and in Europe — to working on mRNA as one of the foundations for new vaccines," Greenberg said. "mRNA vaccines have been some of the ones that have gotten a lot of attention the past couple years because of their success, which has really shown during the COVID-19 pandemic."
Messenger RNA can be used to prevent illness in multiple ways. Dr. Gunjan Arora is part of a team at the Yale School of Medicine working on an mRNA vaccine for Lyme disease — a tick-borne illness caused by a specific bacteria.
The vaccine would essentially target antigens found in tick saliva, preventing it form feeding on people and reducing transmission.
Researchers say the advancement of mRNA COVID vaccines shows a lot of potential for mRNA use.
"Acceptability of any new technology requires a breakthrough, a validation process, which I think COVID-19 has done in this case," Arora said.