• Michelle Dickinson

COVID-19 mRNA vaccine explained using cookies!

The mRNA COVD vaccine is different to some of the other vaccines we are familiar with. So what is mRNA and how does this new type of vaccine work? The m stands for messenger and it's a bit like a recipe, so I thought I'd try to explain this by mixing my two favourite things cookies and science!


The recent COIVD pandemic has shown the world how quickly the medical research field can move when focused on just one health challenge. As a nanotechnologist myself I’m fascinated by the world of the tiny, and have spent my career trying to understand how science that is 100,000 times smaller than the width of your hair strand can help to shape the future of medical research.

Thanks to advancements in our ability to share and analyze big data quickly, as well as the decrease in costs of genome sequencing, researchers were able to understand the structure and composition of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a way that not only helped us to understand how it attached using a spike protein but also how quickly it was mutating as it spread around the world. Access to this big data source is one of the reasons why the new mRNA vaccine could be created quickly and is so effective thanks to its highly specific targeting.

Most vaccines work by injecting a small amount of the lab grown virus into our body to help our immune system to recognize and attack it. While the amount is small enough that it shouldn’t overwhelm our body, it still requires the culture and growth of the virus itself usually in something like a hens egg.

The mRNA vaccine is totally different and doesn’t include any virus at all. Researchers were able to find a spike protein on the virus. This protein is very important to the virus as it uses the spike to attach to human cells and start the infection process.

Scientists were able to create a recipe to teach our own cells how to grow this spike protein on a healthy human cell. This recipe was written into an mRNA molecule which are molecules that our cells use as instruction manuals for what to build next. By encapsulating this delicate mRNA molecule into a nano lipid droplet, or tiny fat bubble shield - these instructions then teach our own cells how to make a spike protein themselves. Once made, this harmless spike protein can then be used to train our immune system how to recognize and attack it meaning that our body is prepared to quicky attack the spike protein if a virus ever entered our body. By training our body to fight something without ever having to be exposed to it we can reduce huge amounts of risk around a potentially deadly live virus.

This leap in technology to create what is essentially biological software now has the potential to produce vaccines to fight againts many other diseases including malaria, tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, HIV and even some types of cancer.

Nanolipids are just one way that drugs can now be delivered to specific parts of the body in very targeted ways using nanotechnology. Nanoparticles made from other materials including metals have been shown to be antibacterial and may be the next weapon in our fight against antibiotic resistance in bacteria – classed as one of the next biggest threats to human health.

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