New RNA Vaccines May Reduce Disease Outbreak Response Time

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new type of customizable vaccines using messenger RNA that has proven to effectively combat a wide range of lethal pathogens when administered to mice, and might be able to reduce disease outbreak response time in the future.

A new type of customizable vaccine has been developed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These vaccines can be developed within a week, and thus, may quicken response time when it comes to disease outbreaks. According to a press release published on the MIT website, vaccines have already been designed to combat Ebola, H1N1 influenza, and Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, and when administered to mice they found that the vaccines were 100% effective.

As stated in the release, “The vaccine consists of strands of genetic material known as messenger RNA, which can be designed to code for any viral, bacterial, or parasitic protein. These molecules are then packaged into a molecule that delivers the RNA into cells, where it is translated into proteins that provoke an immune response from the host.”

Omar Khan, a postdoc at the Koch Institute, made the decision to package the RNA vaccines into a nanoparticle made from a dendrimer, a branched molecule. The nanoparticle can form close associations with negatively charged RNA, due to the fact that researchers are able to provide it with a temporary positive charge. In addition, Khan was able to generate spherical vaccine particles with a diameter of about 150 nanometers by inducing the RNA structure to fold over on itself. Through this process, Khan was able to control the pattern and size of the structures. The fact that many viruses are similar in size to these structures allows them to enter cells through the same surface proteins that many viruses use.

RNA vaccines are easy to administer due to the fact that they have been designed to be delivered by intramuscular injection, a technique used to administer a medication into the muscles, allowing the bloodstream to absorb it more quickly. “Once the particles get into the cells, the RNA is translated into proteins that are released and stimulate the immune system. Significantly, the vaccines were able to stimulate both arms of the immune system-a T cell response and an antibody response,” according to the release. In doing this, Khan found a safe and effective way to deliver the vaccines, overcoming an obstacle that researchers have been met with for over 30 years.

The vaccines were proven both successful and effective when the researched administered one dose of a vaccine to mice, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study showed that after being exposed to the pathogen of Ebola, H1N1 influenza, or Toxoplasma gondii, the mice did not reveal any symptoms of exposure or infection.

In contrast to the long length of time that is needed to manufacture most traditional vaccines—months or years—these new RNA vaccines can be developed within a week.

When speaking on further implications of these vaccines, Daniel Anderson, associate professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, said, “This nanoformulation approach allows us to make vaccines against new diseases in only seven days, allowing the potential to deal with sudden outbreaks or make rapid modifications and improvements.”

According to the study, this is the first system that can successfully provide immunity against a spectrum of lethal pathogens. Researchers are currently using this same approach in an attempt to create cancer cures where the immune system can be taught to both recognize and destroy tumors.