The long road to mRNA vaccines

Today’s success with mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 comes from the decades of research that came before it.

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Timeline - Decades of progress

The big question

Was the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines rushed?

The quick answer

The science behind the new COVID-19 vaccines has not been rushed. In fact, these vaccines are building on decades of scientific research.

The story involves hundreds of people all over the world and highlights the importance of fundamental and applied research. Advancements in our understanding of messenger RNA (mRNA) and its potential for use in medicines, along with the creation of new technologies over the last 30 years, made these vaccines possible. Recent research on coronaviruses, in particular, made these vaccines effective.

The longer story

Headlines around the world have focused on how quickly vaccines against COVID-19 were developed, but there is no such thing as an "overnight success" in science.

These vaccines—and the ones that use messenger RNA (mRNA), in particular—are building on decades of scientific research.

  • Fundamental research (sometimes called basic research) focuses on the underlying mechanisms of biology and the cellular, molecular, and physiological basis for health and disease.
  • Applied research teases out the knowledge acquired through fundamental research in the hopes of putting it to a specific use, like new medicines and therapies.

The story behind these mRNA vaccines and the related technologies involves hundreds of people all over the world who have worked in fundamental and applied areas of research over time. Their efforts helped to create the knowledge base that led to the wonderful vaccine developments we're seeing at work today.

Wait a minute. What the heck is messenger RNA (mRNA), anyway?

Right now, your body is using millions of tiny proteins for its regular functions, just to stay alive and healthy.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) is critical to all of this because it’s what your body uses to tell your cells which proteins to build. Read more

Decades of progress

This “knowledge base” is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a foundation of knowledge that has been built through hard work. Every surprising study, every failed experiment, every paper published—in the world of science, these are all small steps of progress. And when it comes to mRNA, researchers have been taking these steps for decades.

The timeline provides a few of their highlights.

1980s

Dr. Pieter Cullis and his team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) study lipids. This fundamental research was designed to better understand how lipids work.

1990s

Dr. Katalin Karikó, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, spends a decade studying RNA to unlock its potential for use in medicine.

1995

Dr. Pieter Cullis and his team turn their attention to using lipid nanoparticles in medicine, in particular for gene therapy drugs that use nucleic acids (like RNA).

The lipid nanoparticles form a protective bubble around the medicine so that it can be delivered to cells safely and effectively.

2005

Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman publish scientific papers about their breakthrough: They figured out how to make synthetic RNA safe for injection into cells.

This is a huge step forward for developing RNA-based medicines.

2007+

Dr. Derrick Rossi, a Canadian stem cell biologist, starts his lab at Harvard Medical School in 2007.

He sets out to build on the work of Drs. Karikó and Weissman, as well as the work of stem cell researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanaka.

In 2009, his lab uses mRNA to make adult cells function like embryonic stem cells. This big news leads to the creation of Moderna in 2010.

2010s

Dr. Pieter Cullis and his team begin working with Dr. Drew Weissman and Dr. Katalin Karikó on vaccines that could use mRNA + lipid nanoparticles. This leads to collaborations with BioNTech and Pfizer.

2014+

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a researcher with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States, begins work on coronavirus biology and vaccine development.

The world had already seen two coronavirus outbreaks with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012.

Dr. Corbett and colleagues study these coronaviruses, including the signature “spike protein” and the role it could play in vaccine development.

This leads to collaborations between the NIH and Moderna.

December 2019

New illness reported in Wuhan, China.

January 2020

Complete genetic sequence of novel coronavirus published and shared with scientists around the world.

January 2020+

Originally focused on MERS, Dr. Corbett’s team (under the direction of Dr. Barney Graham at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Centre) and Moderna pivot quickly to develop a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA.

Originally focused on Zika and influenza, Drs. Cullis, Weissman, and Karikó halt other projects to focus on SARS-CoV-2 and develop a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA and lipid nanoparticles.

These scientists and others were able to move quickly when the pandemic hit because decades of fundamental and applied research had already been done.

Dr. Pieter Cullis
Dr. Derrick Rossi
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Dr. Drew Weissman
Dr. Katalin Karikó

It was all of this research, from the curiosity-driven studies of lipids to the ever-improving experiments with synthetic mRNA, that made these vaccines possible. And it was the intense study of other coronaviruses that made these vaccines effective, particularly the studies that focused on the famous “spike protein” in recent years.

In the end, it was this the scientific evidence and hard-earned knowledge that came from previous research that led to the rapid development of safe and effective vaccines.

The science behind the COVID-19 vaccines was not rushed.

If anything, the story behind them—and the decades of research within that story—is remarkable.

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