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How is genomic medicine different from COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology?

This article was published on
August 2, 2021

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Since mRNA is very delicate, delivery into cells can be a challenge. Scientists used a delivery method using tiny balls of fat called liquid nanoparticles. These can help transport mRNA into the body safely, without degrading the mRNA. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines use liquid nanoparticles to deliver the vaccine formulas to the targeted cells. It is likely that any potential future “superhero” vaccines produced using genomic medicine may also use the delivery method of encasing mRNA in a envelope of fats. For now, this is a theoretical idea.

Since mRNA is very delicate, delivery into cells can be a challenge. Scientists used a delivery method using tiny balls of fat called liquid nanoparticles. These can help transport mRNA into the body safely, without degrading the mRNA. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines use liquid nanoparticles to deliver the vaccine formulas to the targeted cells. It is likely that any potential future “superhero” vaccines produced using genomic medicine may also use the delivery method of encasing mRNA in a envelope of fats. For now, this is a theoretical idea.

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What our experts say

Genomic medicine is an emerging medical discipline. It involves using unique information from someone’s individual genetics as part of their clinical care. 

Within genomic medicine, gene editing is being explored to treat rare genetic diseases. The process aims to change the genetic code of patients by revising, removing, or replacing a mutated gene. For instance, using gene therapy, medical scientists can work toward inserting a healthy, non-mutated version of a gene in order to outweigh the effect of a mutated gene. They can also work toward removing a mutated gene. Examples of diseases that may be treated using this technology are cystic fibrosis, Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, and hemoglobinopathies. Another potential clinical application of this process would be to treat HIV and some cancers. 

Importantly, all the treatments mentioned above are still being explored. Many of them are still in the earliest stages of scientific testing. In addition, some challenges will have to be overcome before the potential of gene editing could be translated into effective treatment.

False online claims suggest that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines may be using genomic medicine to alter our DNA. There is no evidence that mRNA vaccines inject any gene-editing technology into the body.     After delivering key immune-fighting instructions to our immune systems, our bodies immediately destroy the mRNA vaccines, leaving no permanent trace of them. The vaccines never enter the nucleus of human cells, which is where the DNA is kept. 

Since mRNA is very delicate, delivery into cells can be a challenge. Scientists used a delivery method using tiny balls of fat called liquid nanoparticles. These can help transport mRNA into the body safely, without degrading the mRNA. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines use liquid nanoparticles to deliver the vaccine formulas to the targeted cells. It is likely that any potential future “superhero” vaccines produced using genomic medicine may also use the delivery method of encasing mRNA in a envelope of fats. For now, this is a theoretical idea.

Both future “superhero” vaccines and current mRNA vaccines can be categorized as genomic because they would encompass DNA or RNA. However, it should be noted that no superhero vaccine exists at this time so this is a hypothetical comparison.

Context and background

It is estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. These are the smallest units of heredity. Most humans have two copies of each gene, one inherited from each parent. The complete set of all the genetic material in an organism is called the genome. 

The Human Genome Project was an international research effort that determined the sequence and map of all the human genes. It paved the way for Genomic medicine, which is impacting the fields of oncology, pharmacology, rare and undiagnosed diseases, and infectious disease.

With the recent technologies in molecular biology, modern gene-editing enzymes have given scientists the ability to manipulate the genome, allowing for biological research into potentially life-saving treatments. These technologies are not used in any COVID-19 vaccine development or production. 

Resources

  1. National Human Geonome Institute (https://www.genome.gov/health/Genomics-and-Medicine)
  2. Roth S. C. (2019). What is genomic medicine?. Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, 107(3), 442–448. https://doi.org/10.5195/jmla.2019.604
  3. Science Magazine (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/06/crispr-injected-blood-treats-genetic-disease-first-time)
  4. Redman, M., King, A., Watson, C., & King, D. (2016). What is CRISPR/Cas9?. Archives of disease in childhood. Education and practice edition, 101(4), 213–215. (https://doi.org/10.1136/archdischild-2016-310459)
  5. Doudna Lab (https://doudnalab.org/research_areas/new-editing-tools/)
  6. UNESCO (https://en.unesco.org/news/jennifer-doudna-and-emmanuelle-charpentier-win-2020-nobel-prize-chemistry)
  7. Wu, Q., Dudley, M. Z., Chen, X., Bai, X., Dong, K., Zhuang, T., ... & Yu, H. (2021). Evaluation of the safety profile of COVID-19 vaccines: a rapid review. BMC medicine, 19(1), 1-16.
  8. TIME Magazine https://time.com/5927342/mrna-covid-vaccine/
  9. Africa Check (https://africacheck.org/fact-checks/fbchecks/no-mrna-vaccines-dont-use-crispr-gene-editing-tool-and-cant-change-human-dna)
  10. Chemical & Engineering News (https://cen.acs.org/pharmaceuticals/drug-delivery/Without-lipid-shells-mRNA-vaccines/99/i8 )
  11. Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/genomic-vaccines/)

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