mRNA technology used in COVID vaccines now being tested to treat cancer, autoimmune diseases

MADISON, Wis. — The method used to make the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could change the future of medicine as we know it. Researchers inside the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research have been studying the same mRNA technology in the COVID-19 vaccines for the past decade. What they’re discovering it can be used for now is groundbreaking.

Bill Murphy headshot
Bill Murphy

Professor and Director of the Forward Bio Institute at UW Madison Bill Murphy even called it “game-changing.”

“The mRNA can encode for things that can be therapeutic,” Murphy said. “That might be activating the immune system to attack cancer, it might be producing monoclonal antibodies that allow cancer to be detected and ultimately attacked.”

Aside from possible cancer treatments, the mRNA technology is being tested on a range of things. Murphy said it is being tested to treat/cure things like HIV and Dengue fever.

Recently, Murphy and his team tested how well it would work to fix a spinal cord injury in a rat that could not use its hind legs. After using an mRNA delivery method into the rats spinal cord cells, the rat was able to walk again.

Murphy and his team also tested it on treating diabetic wounds that would otherwise not heal on their own. The mRNA treatment mimicked skin tissue, allowing the wounds to heal in 2-6 weeks.

“It’s using the cells inside the body to produce the drug,” Murphy said. “So you’re essentially creating a factory for production of treatments inside your own body.”

Murphy said one of the most fascinating things about mRNA is that “we can have an idea in the morning and have a prototype treatment in the afternoon.”

The one obstacle they face is finding a way to not have to store it an unbearably cold temperatures.

“If you think about that, even in the United States, it’s very challenging,” Murphy said, “But in low income type economies, that’s going to be tremendously difficult.”

Murphy said despite that challenge, the discovery of what the mRNA technology could do is remarkable.

“One of the directions we are headed in to regenerate human tissue is delivering mRNA in blood clots and in bone marrow clots so they can turn into functional tissues,” he said.

Murphy said mRNA dissolves in the body fairly quickly after being administered, which helps alleviate any safety concerns.

“It’s the same type of molecule being delivered every time,” Murphy said. “It’s similar in structure whether you’re treating cancer or COVID, versus a typical drug treatment where every drug has to be produced, tested and manufactured differently.”

Murphy said right now, there are about 200 different mRNA based product being developed and maybe tens of them in clinical trials. He expects we will see them start to roll out one after another in the coming years.

Author: Jamie Perez