Throughout 2020, people all around the world took to social distancing and wearing masks as a means of protecting themselves from COVID-19. And near the end of the year, a ray of hope emerged in the form of a pair of fast-tracked vaccines that promised to shield people from the virus’s devastating effects. It was a scientific win that happened so quickly that it left many people wondering how it happened at all.

After all, previous vaccines had taken up to ten years or more to perfect. And the previous record for such a development was four years – set in 1960 by Merck’s groundbreaking mumps vaccine. But the truth of the rapid development of the twin COVID-19 vaccines is that they built on decades of research into a new form of vaccine technology: mRNA.

And that technology is going to become more common in the coming years, laying the groundwork for new, previously impossible vaccinations and a variety of other novel medical treatments. Here’s everything you need to know about mRNA – what it is, how scientists have harnessed it, and what it means for the future of human health.

What is mRNA?

Among the general public, there’s a tendency to conflate DNA – the building blocks of all life – and mRNA. They are similar in a few ways but dissimilar in others. DNA contains complete genetic information for each cell in the human body. In short, it’s a roadmap with complete instructions of how we’re made.

On the other hand, mRNA – or messenger RNA – is far more specific. It is more like a copy of a single gene than a complete instruction set. It’s the way our bodies make new specific cells. mRNA carries only the specific genetic instructions needed to tell the body what to produce. And by figuring out how to create synthetic mRNA, medical researchers gained the ability to instruct our bodies to manufacture cells they would otherwise not know how to make.

The History of mRNA Research

Even though the early COVID-19 vaccines seemed like they came out of nowhere, they didn’t. They’re the culmination of research work stretching back at least 30 years. And the roots of that work go back much further than that. It all began with our growing understanding of DNA, and the development of complex equipment like microplate readers from BMGLabtech and others that made it possible to study it.

And once DNA was well understood, scientists identified mRNA as a promising way to create new medicines and vaccines. And it took decades of dogged work by pioneers like Hungarian scientist Katalin Karikó, who risked her entire career pursuing the idea – even as others dismissed it as impossible. The reason that they did was that synthetic mRNA tended to cause severe immune responses in humans, which made them dangerous to use as a medicine delivery method.

It wasn’t until 2005, when Karikó and research partner Drew Weissman figured out a method to disguise synthetic mRNA, that a breakthrough came. By altering the structure of synthetic mRNA to mimic its natural form, the researchers managed to prevent it from triggering an immune response in humans. And in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, a version of that altered structure is now used to give our bodies a map to create COVID-19’s infamous spike protein – in effect teaching our bodies how to destroy it on sight.

What Comes Next

Now that a viable mRNA vaccine is available and has proven effective, the sky’s the limit for the technology. Researchers expect to be able to use it to create rapid-response vaccines in the future that could end the threat of viral pandemics forever. Already, mRNA-based vaccines are undergoing testing to prevent Zika, Ebola, and influenza. And scientists also believe that the technology might also turn into promising treatments or cures for things like cancer and cystic fibrosis. It is also in the way of potentially eliminating dengue fever, a deadly virus that infects over 400 million people worldwide every year.

The bottom line here is that mRNA technology is a breakthrough of immeasurable importance to human health. And for that reason, there’s a good chance that we’re all going to be hearing more about it in the years to come. But for now, we can all just be thankful that the technology matured just in time to tackle the worst pandemic in a generation – and count ourselves lucky that scientists worked so hard for so long to make it all possible.