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HKUST Researchers Develop New Vaccine Tech

Image Credits: HKUST, Press Release

A team of synthetic biologists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) discovered a new method that could increase the production efficiency of synthetic mRNAs by up to 10 times. This means the effectiveness of mRNA vaccines and drugs – including those used against cancer, Covid-19, or other genetic diseases – will be boosted with an even lower dosage of the mRNAs.

mRNAs can be synthesized to teach our cells how to make a variety of proteins, including antigens, enzymes, and hormones. These are essential in fighting infections and regulating bodily functions. Thus, mRNA is a preferred option for vaccines and treatment for many distinct kinds of diseases.

However, high dosages and repeated injections are often required for mRNA drugs and vaccines to generate enough protein in the body. Thus, enhancing the effectiveness of mRNAs – for example, by increasing their protein production efficiency – is a subject of much research and debate among scientists. This is because our immune system, for example, could work better with a greater number of certain antibodies.

Now, a team led by Prof. Becki KUANG Yi, Assistant Professor at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at HKUST, discovered a way to enhance both the life span and efficiency of mRNA. By engineering the tail sequences of different mRNAs, the team eventually discovered the optimised sequences that could produce 3 to 10 times as many proteins than unoptimised tail sequences commonly used for synthetic mRNAs on both human cells and mice. The duration of protein production is also doubled.

This innovative technology will not only reduce the amount and the number of injections needed for mRNA drugs and vaccines but will also potentially lower the cost of treatments. It can also be used along with other mRNA enhancement technologies to synergically boost protein production.

Prof Kuang stated that increasing the protein production of synthetic mRNA is beneficial to all mRNA drugs and vaccines. He added that, in collaboration with Sun Yat-Sen University, the HKUST team is now exploring the use of optimized tails for mRNA cancer vaccines on animals. The team is also looking forward to collaborating with pharmaceutical companies to transfer this invention onto mRNA therapeutics and vaccine development pipelines to benefit society.

The team’s findings were recently published online in the journal of Molecular Therapy – Nucleic Acids. mRNA drugs and vaccines have attracted much attention in recent years due to their effectiveness in protecting us against severe conditions of certain communicable diseases such as COVID-19 and their high potential in treating chronic diseases like cancers.

The global mRNA therapeutics market size was valued at US$39.90 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 1.7% from 2022 to 2030. RNA-based therapeutics have attracted a lot of attention in recent years owing to their high potential in treating chronic diseases.

In addition, with regard to production, distribution, and safety, RNA vaccines provide several benefits over DNA vaccines. They have also shown promise in human clinical studies, which has increased the demand for mRNA vaccines and therapeutics.

Moreover, the number of mRNA-based vaccine therapeutics in oncology clinical trials has dramatically expanded as a result of the success of Moderna’s and Pfizer- BioNTech’s vaccines against COVID-19. Furthermore, barring the COVID-19 trials in cancer patients, 2021 has seen the second-highest number of mRNA vaccine trials for cancer patients, thus propelling the industry’s growth.

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