mRNA vaccines — a new era in vaccinology

mRNA vaccines — a new era in vaccinology

mRNA vaccines represent a promising alternative to conventional vaccine approaches because of their high potency, capacity for rapid development and potential for low-cost manufacture and safe administration. However, their application has until recently been restricted by the instability and inefficient in vivo delivery of mRNA. Recent technological advances have now largely overcome these issues, and multiple mRNA vaccine platforms against infectious diseases and several types of cancer have demonstrated encouraging results in both animal models and humans. This Review provides a detailed overview of mRNA vaccines and considers future directions and challenges in advancing this promising vaccine platform to widespread therapeutic use.

Vaccines prevent many millions of illnesses and save numerous lives every year1. As a result of widespread vaccine use, the smallpox virus has been completely eradicated and the incidence of polio, measles and other childhood diseases has been drastically reduced around the world2. Conventional vaccine approaches, such as live attenuated and inactivated pathogens and subunit vaccines, provide durable protection against a variety of dangerous diseases3. Despite this success, there remain major hurdles to vaccine development against a variety of infectious pathogens, especially those better able to evade the adaptive immune response4. Moreover, for most emerging virus vaccines, the main obstacle is not the effectiveness of conventional approaches but the need for more rapid development and large-scale deployment. Finally, conventional vaccine approaches may not be applicable to non-infectious diseases, such as cancer. The development of more potent and versatile vaccine platforms is therefore urgently needed.

Nucleic acid therapeutics have emerged as promising alternatives to conventional vaccine approaches. The first report of the successful use of in vitro transcribed (IVT) mRNA in animals was published in 1990, when reporter gene mRNAs were injected into mice and protein production was detected5. A subsequent study in 1992 demonstrated that administration of vasopressin-encoding mRNA in the hypothalamus could elicit a physiological response in rats6. However, these early promising results did not lead to substantial investment in developing mRNA therapeutics, largely owing to concerns associated with mRNA instability, high innate immunogenicity and inefficient in vivo delivery. Instead, the field pursued DNA-based and protein-based therapeutic approaches7,8.