MIT Researchers Program RNA Vaccine That Could Protect Against Zika Virus

Using a new strategy that can rapidly generate customized RNA vaccines, MIT researchers have devised a new vaccine candidate for the Zika virus. The vaccine consists of strands of messenger RNA that are packaged into a nanoparticle that delivers the RNA into cells. Once inside cells, the RNA is translated into proteins that provoke an immune response from the host, but the RNA does not integrate itself into the host genome, making it potentially safer than a DNA vaccine or vaccinating with the virus itself. “It functions almost like a synthetic virus, except it’s not pathogenic and it doesn’t spread,” says Dr. Omar Khan, a postdoc at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and an author of the new study. “We can control how long it’s expressed, and it is RNA so it will never integrate into the host genome.” This research also yielded a new benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of other Zika vaccine candidates, which could help others who are working toward the same goal. Dr. Jasdave Chahal, a postdoc at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is the first author of the paper, which was published online on March 21, 2017 in Scientific Reports. The paper’s senior author is Dr. Hidde Ploegh, a former MIT biology professor and Whitehead Institute member who is now a senior investigator in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. Other authors of the paper are Dr. Tao Fang and Dr. Andrew Woodham, both former Whitehead Institute postdocs in the Ploegh lab; Jingjing Ling, an MIT graduate student; and Daniel Anderson, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a member of the Koch Institute and MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES).
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