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Dec 5, 2023

This week we will discuss M-RNA vaccines.  Our guest is Thomas VanCott, PhD.  Thomas VanCott is currently the Chief Scientific Officer for Combined Therapeutics, a Boston based biotech company developing targeted mRNA therapies.  Prior to this he served as the Chief Technology and Strategy Officer for Catalent Cell & Gene Therapy, a global CDMO manufacturing viral vectors for gene and cell therapies as wells as plasmid DNA & mRNA platforms based in Baltimore, MD.  He was responsible for strategically enhancing CMC services to meet the market demand of increasingly complex gene and cell therapy products as well as leading the product development and internal R&D teams.  Prior to this, he was the CEO for 10 years at a Maryland-based CMO/CRO (ABL) where he was responsible for the strategic international growth of the company.  He has been involved in biologics product development for over 25 years.  He has a PhD in physical chemistry and started his career as a Captain in the US Army stationed at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) studying and developing HIV vaccines for international deployment from initial construction through preclinical development, GMP manufacturing and clinical development.

Thomas VanCott

Vaccines help prevent infection by preparing the body to fight foreign invaders (such as bacteria, viruses, or other pathogens). All vaccines introduce into the body a harmless piece of a particular bacteria or virus, triggering an immune response. Most vaccines contain a weakened or dead bacteria or virus. However, scientists have developed a new type of vaccine that uses a molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) rather than part of an actual bacteria or virus. Messenger RNA is a type of RNA that is necessary for protein production.  Once cells finish making a protein, they quickly break down the mRNA. mRNA from vaccines does not enter the nucleus and does not alter DNA.

mRNA vaccines work by introducing a piece of mRNA that corresponds to a viral protein, usually a small piece of a protein found on the virus’s outer membrane. (Individuals who get an mRNA vaccine are not exposed to the virus, nor can they become infected with the virus by the vaccine.) By using this mRNA, cells can produce the viral protein. As part of a normal immune response, the immune system recognizes that the protein is foreign and produces specialized proteins called antibodies. Antibodies help protect the body against infection by recognizing individual viruses or other pathogens, attaching to them, and marking the pathogens for destruction. Once produced, antibodies remain in the body, even after the body has rid itself of the pathogen, so that the immune system can quickly respond if exposed again. If a person is exposed to a virus after receiving mRNA vaccination for it, antibodies can quickly recognize it, attach to it, and mark it for destruction before it can cause serious illness.

Like all vaccines in the United States, mRNA vaccines require authorization or approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be used. Currently vaccines for COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, are the only authorized or approved mRNA vaccines. These vaccines use mRNA that directs cells to produce copies of a protein on the outside of the coronavirus known as the “spike protein”. Researchers are studying how mRNA might be used to develop vaccines for additional diseases.  (credits: Medline Plus)