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The promise of mRNA

A driving force against diseases known—and unknown

While scientists have been working with mRNA for many years, the rapid emergence and phenomenal success of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 has showcased the power of this technology. Without mRNA vaccines, our attempts to control the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic would have been far less successful.

From a therapeutic delivery perspective, all RNAs look alike, so pivoting to new vaccines and therapeutics is greatly simplified (indeed, this helped in the rapid rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines). The exciting future of mRNA therapeutics has the potential to drive the development of an almost limitless number of biomedical therapies. Companies such as Moderna and BioNTech are developing mRNA vaccines for threats ranging from viruses that are currently without effective vaccines—HIV, human metapneumovirus (hMPV), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)—to a next-generation flu vaccine.

Cancer has been one of the most difficult diseases to attack, because of its mutability. By considering the mutations found in a specific patient’s cancer cells and the patient’s distinctive immune system makeup, mRNA vaccines directed against those specific mutations can be generated on a small scale for individual use. Personalized mRNA vaccines to treat cancer are in advanced stages of development by several companies.

The broader field of (non-vaccine) mRNA therapeutics is also showing promise, and over the next several years, RNA is likely to be at the forefront of new approaches to treat a wide variety of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and glycogen storage diseases.

All of these possibilities require one thing—rapid turnaround production of highly pure RNA. The technologies under development by the Martin lab at UMass aim to enable these advanced biomedicines. Our new process creates clean RNA right from the start, eliminating or reducing purification, while providing an even more uniform product than current approaches.

As we look into the bright future of mRNA-based therapies for a wide array of diseases, our labs—and others at UMass Amherst—continue to press forward with vital research on all aspects of this potent technology, from measuring its efficacy, to perfecting delivery methods, to producing RNA for use in these therapies.

Elvan Cavaç ’21PhD is an MBA candidate at the Isenberg School of Management and works in mRNA Process Development at Tessera Therapeutics.

Craig Martin is a professor of chemistry at UMass Amherst.

Barbara Osborne is a distinguished professor of veterinary and animal sciences at UMass Amherst.

Read more about UMass advances in making mRNA therapies possible.