Customizable RNA vaccine successful in mice

MIT campus--Courtesy of MIT

MIT scientists have devised a customizable RNA vaccine, which could lead to a faster response during infectious disease outbreaks.

Messenger RNA, or mRNA, can be made to code for any pathogenic protein. In a vaccine, they are administered in another molecule, which then delivers the RNA into host cells where it translates into proteins that cause an immune response. The MIT team created mRNA candidates against Ebola, H1N1 and Toxoplasma gondii, all of which proved 100% successful in mice, according to a statement. They hope that the approach will also be applicable to cancer vaccines.

Instead of simply delivering proteins to induce an immune reaction like traditional vaccines, RNA vaccines make the host cell produce numerous copies of the proteins they code for, thus provoking a stronger immune response. And while the concept of using mRNA in vaccines has persisted for 30 years, a significant hurdle has been finding a way to deliver them safely and effectively.

Omar Khan of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research encased the RNA molecules in nanoparticles made from a branched molecule, dendrimer. He designed the nanoparticle to fold over itself several times, resulting in a spherical vaccine particle about the same size as many viruses. This particle uses the same surface proteins on host cells as to enter them as viruses do, the statement said.

The vaccine is injected and takes 7 days to make, a far cry from the years or even decades that the traditional vaccine development model takes. “Typically a vaccine becomes available long after the outbreak is over,” said Jasdave Chahal, who led the project, in the statement. “We think we can become interventional over the course of a real outbreak.”

“The option of rapidly creating a completely synthetic formulation that can be effective as a vaccine is an important addition to currently available vaccine strategies,” said Hidde Ploegh, an MIT professor of biology and an author of the paper, in the statement.

Chahal and Khan are also working on cancer vaccines to teach the immune system to identify and attack tumors. They also plan to create a company to license and commercialize the RNA vaccine. Their next targets include Lyme disease and Zika virus, for which a slew of biotechs and pharmas are already racing to develop vaccines.

- here's the statement

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