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News Navigator: What's the mRNA technology behind quick development of COVID vaccines?

This file photo shows a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the quick development of COVID-19 vaccines.

    Question: Why did the development of coronavirus vaccines take a shorter time than vaccines for other illnesses?

    Answer: The key lies with the messenger RNA (mRNA) of coronavirus vaccines. In general, vaccines use inactivated pathogens, and since large quantities of the virus need to be grown in living cells, their development requires time. In contrast, mRNA, which carries DNA information that gives instructions to create copies of the spike protein found on the coronavirus's surface, can be produced synthetically, and thereby quickly. Entering the 21st century, scientists have successfully developed technology enabling constant effectiveness inside human bodies. This technology, which was enhanced through steady efforts, can be said to have been proven effective following the COVID-19 outbreak.

    Q: It seems to be a groundbreaking technology, right?

    A: Yes, it is. Such mRNA therapeutics were practically used in COVID-19 vaccines for the first time, but there has been progress in moves to utilize the technology elsewhere.

    Q: What diseases can it be used against?

    A: It is especially promising as a vaccine against cancer. Development of treatment that effectively acts against genes unique to cancer cells is under deliberation, and in Germany and the United States, research is at the stage of examining their efficacy on patients. Theoretically speaking, the vaccines are thought to be capable of use against all types of cancer, and their application against other diseases is also under consideration.

    Q: Has there been progress on research and development of mRNA technology in Japan?

    A: Tokyo Medical and Dental University professor Keiji Itaka and others are aiming to utilize it in treatment for osteoarthritis, or the breakdown of cartilage in the knee joints. A joint startup consisting of researchers from Nagoya University and Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine and others was also established in March. It seems that mRNA medicine will also gather attention outside its role as a COVID-19 vaccine.

    (Japanese original by Kouki Matsumoto, Science & Environment News Department)

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