BUDAPEST, Hungary —The COVID-19 jab may hold the key to curing cardiovascular disease, according to a new study. A team with the European Society of Cardiology says the coronavirus vaccine boosts the immune system by delivering tiny particles of fat (or lipids) into the body’s cells.
Experiments on mice found a similar technique that scientists use to create the COVID jab also helped the organ to repair itself after a heart attack. The method is called mRNA delivery and study authors are hailing it as a “game changer” in medicine. They believe it can treat a host of illnesses and even lead to the creation of a “superhuman” vaccine in the future.
Messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA for short, is a single-strand molecule that carries genetic code from DNA to a cell’s protein-making machinery. The vaccine instructs cells to make a dummy spike protein on their surface to mimic the coronavirus. Resulting antibodies are then ready to protect the patient from a future infection.
The process paved the way for the Pfizer and Moderna to create their COVID-19 vaccines. In the latest study, the goal was to improve the heart’s cells. Researchers successfully delivered the mRNA to the muscle in lipid nanoparticles. They also put different formulations into the wall of mouse hearts during open chest surgery under general anesthesia.
A day after administration, study authors sacrificed the mice so they could examine the location of mRNA delivery. Their analysis showed it had successfully reached the heart cells 24 hours after injection. The team also found the highest levels in cells in the liver and spleen.
“High expression was expected in the liver, since it metabolizes the lipid nanoparticles. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see that there was mRNA translation in the heart tissue which means that lipid nanoparticles could work as delivery systems for mRNA therapy,” says lead author Dr. Clara Labonia from the University Medical Centre Utrecht in a media release.
How do mRNA vaccines work?
Previous studies have raised the possibility that mRNA vaccines could eventually cure almost anything, from cancer to asthma. Doctors have administered billions of doses across the globe during the pandemic.
Once a virus is inside our cells, it releases its own RNA, tricking hijacked cells into spewing out copies of the virus in the form of viral proteins which compromise the immune system. Traditional vaccines work by injecting inactivated virus proteins called antigens. They stimulate the body’s immune system to recognize the virus when it reappears.
However, mRNA vaccines work by using the genetic sequence or “code” of the antigen — fooling the body into creating antibodies. They are safer, quicker, and cheaper to produce. One lab can sequence the proteins of the antigen and email it around the world.
“The next step of this research is to test more formulations and choose the one which most efficiently targets the heart tissue. We will then assess whether delivery of mRNA to mice with ischemic hearts (resembling a heart attack) has any therapeutic effect,” Dr. Labonia says.
Cardiovascular disease is the world’s biggest killer, claiming almost 18 million lives a year.
The team presented their findings at Frontiers in CardioVascular Biomedicine 2022, a meeting of the European Society of Cardiology.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.