How mRNA vaccine technology is boosting therapies for chronic diseases like cancer

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The success of mRNA vaccine technology against Covid is holding promise for treatments against several chronic diseases, as well as influenza, cancer, cystic fibrosis, and many others.

Although potential therapies are still many years away, researchers see promise in mRNA to treat rare, inherited metabolic disorders, a host of pathogens, including Zika, rabies, HIV, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which hospitalises 3 million children under age 5 each year worldwide, according to a recent report by US non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.

“This is just the start,” Dr. Judith James, vice president of clinical affairs for the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, was quoted as saying.

“We won’t see these dividends in their full glory for years,” she added.

Both Pfizer and Moderna, credited for the success of their Covid shots, had earlier worked on mRNA vaccines for cancer. Their success is now prompting dozens of clinical trials of therapeutic mRNA vaccines for cancers of pancreas, colon, and skin – all which frequently respond well to immunotherapy, the report said.

Further, during pandemic researchers have shown that cellphone apps can detect potential Covid cases by monitoring patients’ self-reported symptoms. According to James, the same computer technology could help predict flare-ups of autoimmune diseases.

“We never dreamed we could have a PCR test that could be done anywhere but a lab,” James said. “Now we can do them at a patient’s bedside in rural Oklahoma. That could help us with rapid testing for other diseases.”

The pandemic also led to the discovery of interferon-targeting antibodies. Research showed that 15 to 20 per cent of patients over 70 who die of Covid have rogue antibodies that disable a key part of the immune system, called interferon that acts as a first line of defense against viruses.

By disabling key immune fighters, autoantibodies against interferon allows the Coronavirus to multiply wildly.

Antibodies that disable interferon may explain why a fraction of patients succumb to viral diseases, such as influenza, while most recover, Dr. Gary Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Philanthropies, a nonprofit that funds medical research, was quoted as saying.

The discovery “goes far beyond the impact of covid-19,” Michelson said. “These findings may have implications in treating patients with other infectious diseases” such as the flu.

Several international research teams are now looking for such autoantibodies in patients hospitalised by other viral infections, including chickenpox, influenza, measles, respiratory syncytial virus, and others, the report said.

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