Rapid vaccine development unleashed a technology poised to deliver more vaccines & treatments

After scientists created mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid)-based vaccines against COVID-19 at lightning speed, just one year after the pandemic emerged, a common misconception also surfaced—that mRNA was a brand-new focus for drug-development research.

In reality, nearly five decades of scientific efforts have identified many other promising treatments using this technology, which is now poised to deliver vaccines and therapies for other infections as well as certain cancers and genetic diseases.

Jason Braithwaite
Jason Braithwaite, PharmD, MS, BCPS

Indeed, the two mRNA vaccinations approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) resulted from the fastest vaccine development process in history, says Jason Braithwaite, PharmD, MS, BCPS, AVP, Clinical Pharmacy Services, HealthTrust. But the achievement was merely the visible tip of a huge iceberg of research dating to the 1970s.
Key recent scientific advances, such as human genome sequencing and nanotechnology to facilitate drug delivery to cells, also fueled this seemingly instant success.

“Many cascading processes allowed scientists to take advantage of the use of mRNA over time,” Braithwaite explains. “In a sense, it was ‘perfect timing’ to respond to a pandemic because all those developments had already occurred.”

How it works

In simple terms, mRNA is a molecule that instructs cells to make proteins that mimic the proteins found on the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This protein triggers an immune response resulting in the creation of memory cells that are ready to attack the COVID-19 virus the next time the vaccinated person is exposed.

Even before the pandemic and the advent of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, the market for drugs and therapies using mRNA technology was predicted to exceed $6 billion by 2025. Currently, more than 400 clinical trials are testing RNA-based drugs across nearly two dozen disease categories. Four dozen are in phase 3 trials—the last stage before potential FDA approval.

“Once we’re able to identify proteins that are part of a virus or other disease-causing organism, scientists are able to develop a target for it really quickly,” Braithwaite says. “Even though we’re probably going to forever associate mRNA with the COVID vaccines, multiple drugs are using mRNA to fight cancer and other rare diseases that haven’t been treatable before.”

‘Endless possibilities’

Braithwaite is excited by what he calls “endless possibilities” for mRNA use in drugs and therapies going forward. “I think it’s the new wave and will serve as a backbone of treatments,” he adds. Braithwaite shares some additional use-cases for mRNA-based therapies that are on the horizon:

  • Other vaccines: These include improved versions for infections such as shingles or pneumococcal pneumonia and meningitis, for which older vaccines are available.
  • Cancer: Unlike chemotherapy that kills both malignant and healthy cells in a shotgun approach, mRNA-based treatments would hyperdrive your immune system to create a very targeted approach against only cancer cells.
  • Genetic conditions: Essentially, any genetic disease, such as cystic fibrosis or spinal muscular atrophy, could be “corrected” by mRNA instructions to replace or build a missing protein fueling the condition.
  • Common conditions: Even chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, might respond to eventual mRNA therapies that instruct the body to interrupt the cell process triggering it.

While mRNA drug development technology is increasingly agile, the timeline for getting therapies to market is slowed by the FDA’s rigorous approval process, Braithwaite says. “We’ll begin to possibly see more approvals by the end of 2022, another handful by the end of 2023, and dozens thereafter,” he predicts.

By working closely with pharmaceutical manufacturers and examining their drug pipelines years in advance, HealthTrust will be able to gather and deliver up-to-the-minute news about mRNA therapies to members. Braithwaite adds, “We plan to bring them to market ASAP with improved pricing at the time of launch, so members can access them at reasonable prices.”

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