There aren’t very many positive things to say about a pandemic, but perhaps one positive outcome has been the successful advancement of mRNA vaccine technology. Although some people have the impression that this was very rapidly developed over the past year or so, the mRNA idea dates back to the late 1980s. It’s actually been undergoing development for 20+ years, although obviously the target wasn’t always the coronavirus. As a chemical engineer, I’m interested in the scale-up and production aspects, since that’s what we do best.
As a vaccine production method, the mRNA platform is exciting because it is so fast. Traditional vaccine production methods required the growth of batches of cells to produce the vaccine components. This cell growth is done in big tanks, sort of like beer brewing, but is typically slow. It may take many days or weeks to get one batch done. Some vaccines are still produced in chicken eggs (influenza) or cells grown in small “roller bottles” (measles). All of these are slow and difficult to scale-up to produce billions of doses.
The mRNA production method is not cell-growth based, it just uses a biochemical synthesis method. Here, you just mix a bunch of ingredients, add some enzymes to assemble the mRNA molecules, then enclose them in some nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are a key part of the product, and they serve a couple of key roles: 1) they protect the mRNA from degradation, since RNA is fairly unstable especially once injected into your arm; and 2) they provide the mechanism for the mRNA to get into your muscle cells where your body uses it to produce the “antigen” (the piece of virus protein that your body learns to recognize and fight, if you’re ever infected with the virus in the future).
This biochemical synthesis method can be done in a few hours, versus the days or weeks for the traditional vaccine manufacturing methods. There are still some purification and packaging steps involved which take some more time, but the overall process is still very fast in comparison to the older ones. The mRNA platform is very adaptable too, so the vaccine can be quickly modified if necessary, as the virus mutates, just by changing the “manufacturing template” (DNA plasmid) that assembles the mRNA molecules.
The Sartorius company (a science materials & equipment supplier) has produced a short video giving some information about mRNA vaccines and production, which is pretty good and not too technical.