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RNA as a novel mechanism of action for vaccines.

With the start of vaccinations in Europe, pandemic control enters the next, probably decisive phase. Much hope is being placed worldwide on the new vaccines against the coronavirus. In particular, the mRNA vaccines from the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna companies are receiving a lot of attention in the wake of this. In December 2020, the BioNTech/Pfizer preparation BNT162b2 was approved as the world's first ribonucleic acid (RNA)-based vaccine.

In the course of vaccination, antigens are supplied to the body, which then lead to a reaction of the body's own immune system, whereby immunization against the pathogen is to be achieved. Adjuvants are usually added to vaccine preparations. These adjuvants increase the immune response and thus lead to increased antibody formation.

Together with the so-called vector vaccines, mRNA vaccines are gene-based vaccines. In addition to gene-based vaccines, immunology also distinguishes between live and dead vaccines.

Live-attenuated vaccines

Live-attenuated vaccines contain pathogens or parts of them whose pathogenic properties have been specifically reduced. These are recognized by the body as foreign substances (so-called antigens) and trigger a response from the immune system. As a result, antibodies are developed that lead to immunity against the virus. Live-attenuated vaccines lead to long or lifelong protection after basic immunization. However, these types of vaccines are not suitable for immunocompromised persons; in addition, in individual cases, symptoms similar to those of the disease itself may occur.

Inactivated vaccines

As the name suggests, Inactivated vaccines transport inactivated pathogens that are not capable of replication into the body. Although they can infect body cells, they can no longer reproduce and therefore do not trigger an infection. Nevertheless, an immune response is elicited, resulting in immunization. Inactivated vaccines can contain whole particles or only parts of them. For example, hepatitis A vaccines are whole-particle vaccines, while influenza vaccines are split-particle vaccines that contain only a subunit of the pathogen.

Vector vaccines

Vector vaccines belong to the group of gene-based vaccines. Here, no direct pathogen is introduced into the body; instead, the gene-based blueprint for this pathogen is administered. Instead of being produced in incubated chicken eggs, the antigens are produced by the human body itself, which simplifies the vaccine manufacturing process.  As a result of antigen production, there is an immune response or immunization against the pathogen, similar to dead/live vaccines.

To transport the blueprint into the body, viral vectors are used as "viral cabs". Certain types of adenoviruses, for example, which actually cause respiratory symptoms such as colds in humans, are suitable for this purpose. In addition, specially developed vaccine viruses can be used as transport vehicles. Vector vaccines have so far only been used in the fight against the Ebola virus and dengue fever.

(m)RNA vaccines

RNA vaccines (or mRNA vaccines) are also gene-based vaccines and are based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), which provides the information for producing individual antigens. Although the BioNTech/Pfizer preparation is the world's first mRNA vaccine, the process is not completely new: the method is already being used successfully in the treatment of tumor patients.

In contrast to vector vaccines, the genetic data for antigen production are not transported to the cells on carrier viruses, but via liquid nanoparticles (e.g. fat droplets). mRNA vaccines have a significantly better safety profile and fewer side effects according to current findings.

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Vaccines are an example of the potential that lies in the work of life science companies. To make the most of this potential, companies need highly qualified personnel to help them improve existing technologies and develop new products.

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