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3 medical innovations fueled by COVID-19 that will outlast the pandemic

Topic: 3 medical innovations fueled by COVID-19 that will outlast the pandemic

A number of technologies and tools got a chance to prove themselves for the first time in the context of COVID-19. Three researchers working in gene-based vaccines, wearable diagnostics and drug discovery explain how their work rose to the challenge of the pandemic, and their hopes that each technology is now poised to continue making big changes in medicine.

Thirty years ago, researchers for the first time injected mice with genes from a foreign pathogen to produce an immune response. Like many new discoveries, these first gene-based vaccines had their ups and downs. Early mRNA vaccines were hard to store and didn’t produce the right type of immunity. DNA vaccines were more stable but weren’t efficient at getting into the cell’s nucleus, so they failed to produce sufficient immunity.

Researchers slowly overcame the problems of stability, getting the genetic instructions where they needed to be and making them induce more effective immune responses. By 2019, academic labs and biotechnology companies all over the world had dozens of promising mRNA and DNA vaccines for infectious diseases, as well as for cancer in development or in phase 1 and phase 2 human clinical trials.

When COVID-19 struck, mRNA vaccines in particular were ready to be put to a real-world test. The 94% efficacy of the mRNA vaccines surpassed health officials’ highest expectations.

DNA and mRNA vaccines offer huge advantages over traditional types of vaccines, since they use only genetic code from a pathogen – rather than the entire virus or bacteria. Traditional vaccines take months, if not years, to develop. In contrast, once scientists get the genetic sequence of a new pathogen, they can design a DNA or mRNA vaccine in days, identify a lead candidate for clinical trials within weeks and have millions of doses manufactured within months. This is basically what happened with the coronavirus.

Gene-based vaccines also produce precise and effective immune responses. They stimulate not only antibodies that block an infection, but also a strong T cell response that can clear an infection if one occurs. This makes these vaccines better able to respond to mutations, and it also means they could be capable of eliminating chronic infections or cancerous cells.

The hopes that gene-based vaccines could one day provide a vaccine for malaria or HIV, cure cancer, replace less effective traditional vaccines or be ready to stop the next pandemic before it gets started are no longer far-fetched. Indeed, many DNA and mRNA vaccines against a wide range of infectious diseases, for treatment of chronic infections and for cancer are already in advanced stages and clinical trials. As someone who has been working on these vaccines for decades, I believe their proven effectiveness against COVID-19 will usher in a new era of vaccinology with genetic vaccines at the forefront.

Topic Discussed: 3 medical innovations fueled by COVID-19 that will outlast the pandemic

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