By Scott Hamilton
I learned something quite new to me this week while reading up on the new COVID-19 vaccines. I found it very fascinating that the latest in vaccine design involves source code, just like you use to program a computer. Yes, you heard me correctly, the source code for mRNA vaccines uses specially designed RNA strands to reprogram cells to perform new functions. After years of research into RNA and DNA, scientists have found a way to control cells and program them to produce various proteins.
This news was a little intimidating to me and honestly, still is, after reading up on it more. The vaccine liquid that gets injected into your arm started off as a series of source code. The code for BioNTech/Pfizer SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine, also known as BNT162b2, was made publicly available, at least parts of it that can help in developing future vaccines. The World Health Organization has access to the complete code and it can be released upon request. The complete mRNA code for the vaccine is 4,284 characters long, which means it could easily be shared on Twitter.
The first stage of modern vaccine production is transferring this code to a DNA printer; yes, they can do that now. They can take a series of digital codes that represents strands of DNA and print actual DNA molecules. After a series of biological and chemical processing, the small amount of printed DNA is converted to RNA in the vaccine vial. This RNA is embedded in a cleverly designed lipid (fatty) package that gets the mRNA into our cells.
You can think of RNA as the volatile “working memory” version of DNA. RNA is like the memory in your computer that is changing constantly; for example, as I typed this article, the volatile memory of the computer updated with each character. The article was not complete until I saved it to disk. RNA is the constantly changing memory and DNA is like the disk that stores the permanent structures. The comparison does not stop there; just like the memory in the computer must constantly be refreshed to keep from losing information, RNA deteriorates over time. DNA on the other hand is like a flash drive, once the data is written to DNA, or disk, it is much more stable. I have disks with files from more than 30-years ago, but nothing from the memory of my computer from an hour ago.
DNA is a digital code. Unlike computer code that consists of only zero and one, DNA uses A, C, G and U/T (the nucleotides, nucleosides or bases). In computers, we store the zero and one and the presence or absence of electrical charge. In nature, A, C, G and U/T are molecules stored in chains of DNA or RNA. Nature groups three nucleotides into a codon, which contains six bits of information (two bits per DNA character) for a total of 64 different codon values. For more on how this works you can read the WHO document at https://mednet-communities.net/inn/db/media/docs/11889.doc.
The idea behind vaccines is to teach our immune systems how to fight a pathogen, without us actually getting ill. Historically this was done by injecting a weakened or incapacitated virus, plus an adjuvant, to scare our immune system into a response. This was a very analog way of handling diseases. An mRNA vaccine does the same education of our immune system, but in a much faster, more digital-like way.
The injection contains volatile genetic material that describes the famous SARS-CoV-2 “Spike” protein. Through the clever mRNA sequencing, our cells are tricked into accepting this RNA strand as their own, effectively reprogramming our cells to produce SARS-CoV-2 Spike proteins in large enough quantities to trigger an immune response. Confronted with Spike proteins, our immune system develops a powerful response against the multiple aspects of the Spike protein and production process. To me, this means that the vaccine modifies cells in our body to become mini-factories, producing the protein that causes COVID-19 symptoms and immune responses.
If you are interested in learning about the full process in detail on how the RNA was modified to hack our DNA, a great place to start is with the article I learned about it from https://berthub.eu/articles/posts/reverse-engineering-source-code-of-the-biontech-pfizer-vaccine/. The article contains links to a lot of detailed information on mRNA vaccines in general and how they work to generate proper immune response against disease. I found it to be a very interesting read indeed, and it helped me to make my decision about whether to accept the mRNA vaccine.
Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to email@example.com.