The Future of RNA-Based Medicine

Updated: Jun 27

By Anagha Dogiparthi




Picture of RNA (https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/scientists-say-rna)


With the way things have been going for the past one and a half years, it’s safe to say most people have heard of the term “RNA-Based Medicine”. Whether this is in the context of the COVID-19 vaccines, the advancement of newer medicine based on these vaccines, or something entirely different, the term has sparked interest for thousands of scientifically inclined minds around the world. But, you must still be wondering what the term really means, and is it as consequential as some make it out to be?

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is quite similar to DNA, the difference being that it contains only one strand (see image). A specific task that an RNA molecule might partake in, is messaging (hence the term mRNA), which essentially entails copying and carrying genetic instructions from one’s DNA to the ribosomes (part of the cell that decodes the messages mRNA delivers). The fact that it plays such a pivotal role in the human body has contributed significantly to the development of the vaccine and other medical advancements and has also ensured that scientists will be using it in the future.


Although mRNA technology has already been implemented in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, scientists have been researching ways in which this technique can become beneficial to combat other viruses or infections. In the COVID-19 vaccines, the mRNA is used to set off the proper immune response to fight the virus, and if this process is successful, the method can be used in other circumstances. Several diseases that have been increasingly harmful to the human population, such as Malaria, Tuberculosis, and Cystic Fibrosis, could be prevented if the “mRNA instructs a patient’s cells to produce protein fragments based on a tumor’s genetic mutations, prompting the immune system to find other cells with the mutated proteins and attack the tumor cells that remain”. Instead of having to placate each patient’s body with medicines that can only backtrack the rise of the disease, having vaccines would be very beneficial toward ensuring that real progress can be made.


Another recent trend with RNA and healthcare has been RNA “Therapy”. Upon reading this, you may be tempted to think of the standard definition of therapy: the difficult process of getting someone to change their mindset through weeks (or even months) of counseling. But this kind of therapy is very different, as it involves medications using messenger RNA, RNA interference, RNA aptamers, and many other purposes.


Prior to the advancements due to the necessity of the COVID-19 vaccine, RNA was just seen as a vital part of the human body’s system, and never as a way to improve and protect the lives of millions. Because of the new discoveries, four categories of RNA Therapy have been identified, all with different purposes and variations. Two of these categories are called Antisense and Messenger RNA-Based Therapy.


The first category of RNA Therapy is more commonly known as “Antisense Gene Therapy”. To begin the process, surgeons insert chemically modified nucleotides into cells, which are engineered to be complementary to specific RNA strands within each respective cell. The strands then bind to its partner RNA strand and attempt to inhibit its result by either “physically blocking translation” or “recruiting an enzyme known as RHase to degrade the mRNA.” In this sense, the correct nucleotide sequence is never delivered to the ribosome, and the harmful protein can never be produced.


The second category of RNA Therapy, mRNA Therapy, is extremely unique as it involves the insertion of mRNA strands in order to modify a protein that could potentially emerge. By comparing the genomic sequence of a region of the body that is presumed to be cancerous, for example, to the same region of the body that is presumed to be “normal,” scientists can identify what exactly needs to be modified in order to eliminate the mutation. Unfortunately, many of the mutations can arise in different forms, and creating personalized versions of these mRNA strands would be extremely difficult and time-consuming.


Although what COVID-19 has brought on society economically, mentally, and physically, has not been beneficial in any sense, the scientific advancements that have been made have the potential to find cures to diseases scientists had never predicted could be found. Instead of thinking mRNA was simply a “helper” rather than a valuable part of the cell, they also discovered it can be used for gene therapy and other various forms of vaccines or medicines. The next time you doubt any other part of the body, make sure to do your research about how useful it can really be! The next time you become doubtful of the importance of a small part of the body, make sure to do your research to learn how useful it can really be!



References

Boyle, P. (2021, March 29). mRNA technology promises to revolutionize future vaccines and treatments for cancer, infectious diseases. AAMC. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/mrna-technology-promises-revolutionize-future-vaccines-and-treatments-cancer-infectious-diseases.

Kim, Y.-K. (2020, May). RNA Therapy: Current Status and Future Potential. Chonnam medical journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7250668/.

Liou, S. (2010, June 29). Antisense Gene Therapy. HOPES. https://hopes.stanford.edu/antisense-gene-therapy/.