The US Food and Drug Administration recently approved emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech.
The vaccine made history not only because it reported a 95 percent efficacy rate at preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials, but because it is the first vaccine ever approved by the FDA for human use that is based on RNA technology.
"The development of RNA vaccines is a great boon to the future of treating infectious diseases," says Lynne Maquat, the J. Lowell Orbison Distinguished Service Alumni Professor in biochemistry and biophysics, oncology, and pediatrics at Rochester and the director of Rochester's Center for RNA Biology.
COVID-19, short for "coronavirus disease 2019," is caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Like many other viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus. This means that, unlike in humans and other mammals, the genetic material for SARS-CoV-2 is encoded in ribonucleic acid (RNA). The viral RNA is sneaky: its features cause the protein synthesis machinery in humans to mistake it for RNA produced by our own DNA.
For that reason, several of the leading COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are based on RNA technology.
A contingent of researchers at the University of Rochester study the RNA of viruses to better understand how RNAs work and how they are involved in diseases. This RNA research provides an important foundation for developing vaccines and other drugs and therapeutics to disrupt the virus and stop infections.
"Understanding RNA structure and function helps us understand how to throw a therapeutic wrench into what the COVID-19 RNA does—make new virus that can infect more of our cells and also the cells of other human beings," Maquat says.
In the past few decades, as scientists came to realize that genetic material is largely regulated by the RNA it encodes, that most of our DNA produces RNA, and that RNA is not only a target but also a tool for disease therapies, "the RNA research world has exploded," Maquat says. "The University of Rochester understood this."
In 2007, Maquat founded The Center for RNA Biology as a means of conducting interdisciplinary research in the function, structure, and processing of RNAs. The Center involves researchers from both the River Campus and the Medical Center, combining expertise in biology, chemistry, engineering, neurology, and pharmacology.