Plastics, Computers, and mRNA March 24, 2022
Maybe the next big thing
And for my generation, it was computers and the Internet. Just as jet engines and plastics led to world transformation, over the past 50 years, computers have fundamentally changed the way humans live and interact.
And just as plastics made many things in our world safer (okay there are also huge safety costs associated with plastics) and created entirely new categories of products, computers have fundamentally changed how humans communicate and go about their days.
And both plastics and computers have or are plateauing in terms of social impact and fostering social change... the change in how we are humans collectively and individually.
As a response to COVID-19, the world adopted the first mRNA based vaccines.
The "messenger ribonucleic acid" is a set of instructions that, when delivered to cells, tells the cell produce a particular sequence of proteins. Those proteins "fold" into a three dimensional shape. These 3D protein shapes train the immune system to attack.
By splicing the DNA sequence of the COVID-19 virus into the piece that describes the "spike protein" on the surface of the virus, we train the body's immune system to target things that have that shape.
And, when the body's immune system sees stuff with those spike proteins attached, the body mounts an immune response that reduces the virus production and spread within the body.
Manufacturing and transportation of mRNA vaccines
Manufacturing mRNA vaccines is relatively easy.
mRNA has the potential to be a rapid and flexible vaccine platform; vaccine development can now focus on process development, rather than being a scientific challenge. Companies can design mRNA vaccines relatively quickly once they know the genetic sequence of the pathogen. To ensure this therapeutic approach reaches its full potential, however, innovative solutions, expertise and ingenuity will need to coalesce to establish a simple and robust platform at production scale.
However, mRNA vaccines must be temperature controlled during transportation and storage.
This moves mRNA from science to engineering.
Locally 3D printing mRNA sequences
Just as mainframe computers took up rooms and we now carry billions of times more powerful devices in our pockets, miniaturizing an mRNA printer seems possible.
Once we have reasonably sized and priced mRNA printers, every Walgreens and CVS could have one... and vaccines could be printed on-demand, while we wait.
I expect that the minicomputerizing of mRNA printers will be a robust area for investment.
To date, the mRNA work has taken DNA from the target pathogen and sliced off the sequence that makes a target for the vaccine such that the body produces the target protein sequence.
There is no need to figure out the protein folding for an mRNA sequence because nature already did that for us.
But if we have a 3D protein structure without the DNA that describes the structure, can we reverse engineer the mRNA sequence?
And why would we want to do this?
Imagine if, as a normal part of a biopsy, the 3D structure of the biopsied materials was obtained... maybe with an electron microscope, maybe in some other manner.
With that structure, could we build an mRNA sequence that would replicate a unique part of the structure such that we can train the body to attack cells with that structure, even if the broader parts of the cell mask the deviant cell from the body's immune system.
It turns out the, while getting computationally easier, it is still tremendously computationally expensive to predict protein folding.
If we can solve the computational issues around protein folding, we could take a protein structure and generate an mRNA sequence that would tell the body how to produce that structure.
Combined with mRNA printers in every Walgreens and CVS, this would lead to custom per-person printing of vaccines that address an individual's cancer.
Imagine if you got a biopsy of a growth in the morning and by the afternoon, you head to your local pharmacy for a vaccination that tells your body how to attack the growth.
Image a world without chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer treatments.
From my perspective, this is the 50 year arc of mRNA... just as we had 50 year arcs in plastics and computing.
It could drastically reduce medical costs while radically increasing lifespans and quality of life.
And if the mRNA printers can be brought down in price to the cost of computers, every pharmacy, every hospital, every clinic around the would could be cost effectively delivering vaccines to every human on earth.