Engineers Design RNA-Based Vaccines

August
2016

A new technology might be the long-sought solution to the challenge of developing quick and flexible vaccines for emerging outbreaks.

The vaccine was shown to protect mice from infection with Ebola, influenza, and the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, say researchers who developed the technology. Several of the scientists are forming a corporation to continue to develop the platform with an eye toward obtaining approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The vaccine uses branching polymer dendrimers combined with replicon messenger RNA (mRNA). The RNA provides the genetic code for antigens, i.e., segments of a pathogen that trigger the body’s immune system to mount a defense. The dendrimers protect these RNA antigens and facilitate their uptake into cells. The customizable design allows researchers to quickly adapt the vaccine technology as a disease outbreak takes hold.

“Current vaccines take about six months to produce,” says Omar Khan, a chemical engineer and post­doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I want to do it within days.”

The idea of using replicon mRNA for vaccines is not new. Unlike DNA-based vaccines, RNA will not accidentally integrate itself into the patient’s genome and cause mutations or cancer. But it can provide the genetic instructions to produce, inside the body, fragments...

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