Vaccines have been around for centuries in one form or another. For example, during the time of our Founding Fathers, it was common in American colonial times to attempt to inoculate people from diseases like measles and smallpox.
The method back then was to take a weakened (hopefully) strain of the disease from a person who was already recovering and inject it into a healthy person. That way, the healthy person was likely to suffer a mild case of the disease but have a much greater chance of full recovery.
Injecting a weakened form of a disease has been the basic concept behind vaccines ever since. It is still used today for flu shots, for example, and other diseases.
But in development for the COVID-19 vaccines, the approach was different and vastly more high-tech. Modern vaccines are called mRNA vaccines because they leverage RNA – the counterpart to DNA – to teach our cells how to make proteins that can trigger an immune response.
That immune response, in turn, produces antibodies that protect us from getting real viruses inside our bodies.
The creation of mRNA vaccines is the result of new technologies that were developed beginning in the early 1990s. These were complex techniques that could manipulate cells on a subcellular level. Specifically, that means being able to go into DNA itself and having the ability to manipulate what this basic building block of life is doing.
It is DNA that holds the code for making proteins. When a cell needs a new protein, it copies the “instructions” for how to make it by reading an RNA molecule which is a single strand of genetic material.
Next, a ribosome – what biologists call a natural “cellular machine” – runs along the code of the RNA strand, reads it, and then delivers the proper building instruction to create the protein needed.
Well, it was in the 1990s that scientists began to duplicate that process in the lab and in a directed fashion. In other words, the technology was developed to mimic to work of a ribosome in its job of creating perfect copies of specific proteins.
For the first time in history, scientists could build any kind of protein they wanted. It was researchers at the University of Wisconsin partnering with a biotechnology company called Vical that developed the first mRNA.