Researchers Of Texas A&M To Develop mRNA Vaccine Platform

A team lead by Qing Sun, assistant professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, has been awarded a Texas A&M University X-Grant to examine and find solutions to the problems presented by mRNA vaccines.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are made using messenger RNA (mRNA), the genetic material that contains instructions for cells to build antigen proteins. These mRNA vaccines represent a fundamentally different approach to traditional vaccines. The overarching goal of the project is to develop an integrated platform that includes high throughput deep learning and novel experimental systems that predict and produce thermally stable mRNA vaccines.

Essentially, all vaccines are used to stimulate and train the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy pathogens. Traditional vaccines contain either killed or weakened forms of a virus or bacterium or proteins associated with the pathogen to provoke an immune response. Rather than introducing a pathogen or associated protein directly, mRNA vaccines introduce genetic information that instructs cells to make proteins that are associated with the pathogens, triggering an immune system response.

While mRNA vaccines have several major advantages over traditional vaccines – precise immune responses, rapid development and production processes, inherent safety – there are a few significant drawbacks. The most critical of these is the overall thermal instability of RNA, which begins to break down above freezing temperatures. As a result, mRNA vaccines require stringent cold chain conditions for manufacturing, storage and worldwide distribution, which has hindered their widespread utilization particularly in rural areas and developing countries that lack ultracold freezers and cold-chain assurance.

The X-Grant team will develop a machine-learning platform that uses deep learning to predict the thermal stabilities of various RNA from sequence information. The team will then develop a DNA/RNA synthesis platform that supports the prototyping of mRNA vaccines and tests the immunogenicity/efficacy of each of the prototype vaccines. The research will initially focus on COVID-19, but the goal is to make the platform flexible enough to expand into other infectious agents, cancers and other significant human diseases.

X-Grants, part of the President’s Excellence Fund at Texas A&M University, is an interdisciplinary program designed to bring faculty together across disciplines. The program’s goal is to unlock creative and imaginative ideas that will address important problems in areas that will significantly impact the most important challenges facing global society. More than 200 proposals were submitted to round four of the X-Grants program, thand eight were finally funded.

This team is composed of eight faculty members, including Sun, Arum Han, Xiaoning Qian and Yang Shen from the College of Engineering; Paul de Figueiredo, Dr. Julian Leibowitz and Jim Song from the School of Medicine; and Xiuren Zhang from the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.

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