18 Aug 2021

Our Changing World - mRNA vaccine technology

From Afternoons, 3:35 pm on 18 August 2021

The role of the messenger

Vaccines work by introducing our bodies to a whole virus or bacteria, or toxin or proteins from that virus or bacteria, in a controlled way, to prime the immune system. In 2020 we saw the introduction of a new way of doing this - mRNA vaccines.

Topic picture - vaccination with the Comirnaty mRNA vaccine from BionTech Pfizer. Vaccine doses with vaccine for injection with a cannula. Close up.

Photo: AFP

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The flow of information in the cell is carefully controlled, and messenger RNA (mRNA) is the key intermediary between DNA and protein production. In this new type of vaccine, scientists use their knowledge of how cells function to send in a new message for the cell to read.

University of Otago microbiologist & immunologist Associate Professor James Ussher explains how decades of work have enabled scientists to tap into this information flow, allowing the development of mRNA vaccines such as the Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

What makes this mRNA vaccine technology so game-changing and exciting? And what problem might it be applied to next? Claire Concannon finds out.

Thanks to WeBanjo3 for the use of their music in this episode.