These are truly novel times that we are experiencing, and the scientific community is no different. Interest in messenger RNA (mRNA) continues to grow within the medical community, especially since the developments of breakthrough COVID-19 vaccines. It is important to note that even after 30 years of research, mRNA vaccines have never before been approved for use in any disease, until now (1). However, researchers in Germany recently used mRNA technology to reduce disease activity in mice with Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis (EAE), a disease similar to multiple sclerosis (2).
mRNA vaccines involve using a small strand of distinct genetic material that carries the instructions for building a specific part of a cell. In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine contains instructions for building the virus’s “spike” protein. When a person receives the mRNA vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19, their own cells are able to build the spike protein. This ramps up an immune system response against the virus.
This response is especially important when it comes to battling the virus that causes COVID-19 because the SARS-CoV-2 virus specifically has the ability to dampen the immune system response while it is still replicating, which can lead to infected individuals spreading the virus to others while still asymptomatic. This is a technique that has not been seen before, virologist Benjamin tenOever of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai stated that “it’s something I have never seen in my 20 years of studying viruses” when discussing the virus’ ability to commandeer cells’ genomes (3).
In their paper entitled “A noninflammatory mRNA vaccine for treatment of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis,” the authors explained how they created an mRNA vaccine containing self-antigens from components of myelin tissues (2). Myelin is a protective coating that surrounds nerve fibers. Multiple sclerosis occurs when myelin is mistakenly attacked by the immune system.
To dampen the out-of-control immune response seen in multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases, patients are often prescribed immunosuppressive drugs. These work in a systemic (rather than targeted) way, which can produce side effects. The mRNA vaccine created by the research team in Germany increased immune cell tolerance and reduced damage to myelin cells- without compromising normal immune system function.
Although it may be quite a while before human clinical trials become a possibility, this research is significant. It shows the potential of mRNA vaccines to treat disease-specific autoimmunity without relying on therapies that suppress immune system function as a whole.
Krienke, C., Kolb, L., Diken, E., Streuber, M., Kirchhoff, S., Bukur, T., Akilli-Öztürk, Ö., Kranz, L., Berger, H, Petschenka, J., Diken, M., Kreiter, S., Yogev, N., Waisman, A., Karikó, K., Türeci, Ö., Sahin, U. (2021). A noninflammatory mRNA vaccine for treatment of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis. Science, 371 (6525), 145-153. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aay3638
Begley, S. (2020, May 21). ‘It’s something I have never seen’: How the Covid-19 virus hijacks cells. Stat News.