Pharmaceutical sciences expert discusses the role of mRNA in the COVID-19 vaccine

COVID virus.

By Kara Sweet

Published January 26, 2021

The two vaccines currently being administered for SARS-Cov-2 (COVID-19) in the United States, developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, contain messenger RNA (mRNA) as their key component. They are the first mRNA vaccines to be FDA-approved.

"Although mRNA vaccines are new, it is expected that they will be safer, and more quickly developed, than vaccines that are comprised of inactivated viruses."
Executive Director, University Research Initiatives, and Director, UB Center for Protein Therapeutics

mRNA: A new method of vaccine delivery

The current COVID-19 vaccines perform differently from more traditional vaccines, such as those administered for the flu.

“Vaccines for influenza are typically comprised of inactivated viruses,” says Professor Joseph Balthasar, PhD, director of the University at Buffalo Center for Protein Therapeutics and executive director of University Research Initiatives. “These FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines provide the genetic code (mRNA) for a specific protein, or for a specific group of proteins, which combat the COVID-19 virus.”

 “Following administration, the mRNA is internalized by the vaccine recipient’s cells which then utilize the mRNA to produce proteins that relate to the virus," he continues. "The patient’s immune system recognizes the viral proteins as being foreign, and then proceeds to develop anti-virus antibodies, which protect the individual from COVID-19 infection.”

mRNA is the set of instructions by which cells make all proteins and send them to various parts of the body. 

Longstanding research in mRNA

As a key type of biological molecule tied directly to protein expression, the analysis of mRNA from cells is an extremely common tool that pharmaceutical scientists at the University at Buffalo have used for decades. Balthasar's lab has conducted mRNA research on antibody and nanobody discovery. More recently, that research has focused on how it can be applied to preventing COVID-19.

“In one study, we obtained mRNA from white blood cells isolated from a COVID-19 immunized llama, and then used the mRNA to develop a panel of new nanobodies,” he says.

This work was then evaluated by Amy Jacobs, PhD, a research assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "Her group tested the utility of our nanobodies for preventing SARS-Cov-2 infection."

A new frontier

Balthasar believes mRNA is part of a new frontier of immunizations, with potential use for many other infectious diseases, including influenza and HIV/AIDS.

“Although mRNA vaccines are new, it is expected that they will be safer, and more quickly developed, than vaccines that are comprised of inactivated viruses.”

For over 130 years, the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences has continually been a leader in the education of pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists, renowned for innovation in clinical practice and research. The school is accredited by the American Council of Pharmaceutical Education (ACPE) and is the No. 1 ranked school of pharmacy in New York State and No. 14 in the United States by U.S. News & World Report.