What is the mRNA Vaccine?
COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Nanoparticle Animation
How are you? We know, that’s an odd way to start an article… but times are rough. We never really imagined that as 2021 ends, we’d still be navigating the uncertainty and fear of COVID-19. As science communicators, our goal is to help convey facts. But science exists in the larger context of society, and as such, you can’t always separate emotion from facts. We’re all scared. We’re uncertain. In an effort to help alleviate some of that fear, our scientific animator Christoph Kuehne created this animation showing COVID-19 mRNA vaccine nanoparticle, and our information designer Claire Agosti created an mRNA vaccine infographic.
Read on to learn more about the mRNA vaccine components, a little bit about how the COVID-19 vaccine works, and where you can go read more information for yourself.
What is a nanoparticle?
First, why do we call these “nanoparticles”? We’re happy to report, it’s relatively self-explanatory! Each nanoparticle is extremely small, measuring around a mere 0.0005 millimeters wide. Nanotechnology, especially for drug delivery, has great promise. It helps target medicine to the right part of the body, and keeps it safe and active for longer. But, you may have negative associations with the thought of putting something “nano” in your body.
Are nanoparticles safe?
It’s true! Some chemicals DO behave differently at the nanoscale (that’s partly what’s so interesting about researching the nanoscale!). You may have read about concerns of nano chemicals in sunscreens? Although this is a bit of an aside, we want to help clarify some of these concerns. Many studies have shown that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in sunscreens are safe on the skin, however they are more worrisome if inhaled from products like powdered makeup. So it’s not an unfounded fear.
But, remember why we call them nanoparticles? It’s simply because of their size. Nanoparticles can be made up of all sorts of things. The good news regarding the mRNA vaccine is that its nanoparticles are remarkably safe. One of the comforting features of the mRNA vaccine is that the nanoparticles are largely made up of fats, called lipids, that are similar to those found in our body. Find out more below.
Lipids, think of them as the container
The bulk of the mRNA vaccine nanoparticle is the shipping container, made up of special fats called lipids. Another word for lipids are fatty acids, and they’re an ideal method to carry the mRNA vaccine. These specially designed lipids include a neutral lipid, a PEGylated lipid, and a ionizable cationic lipid (a technical way of saying it plays nice with water). And finally, nearly half of them are something we can all recognize: cholesterol!
In case you’re worried, this minuscule amount cholesterol will not affect your cardiac health, and each vaccination is only about 0.00018 calories. Well, and if we’re being more precise, it’s not going through your digestive system anyway! The cholesterol, along with the rest of the nanoparticle, will be broken down and removed by your body’s cells within days of vaccination.
mRNA, the most important part…
However, before our body removes the nanoparticle, it has one important job… Delivering the mRNA into our body to rev up our immune system. The lipids we described above serve as packaging for the important mRNA strands. These strands are likely surrounded by water within the nanoparticle. That is, until our cells take up the nanoparticle and the mRNA is released. The mRNA doesn’t go far… primarily staying in the area of muscle where it’s injected (usually an arm), with some traveling to the liver and lymph system. If you’d like more information on where the virus goes, this Science post has a great summary of current research.
The purpose of these mRNA strands is simple: it tells the local cells to create the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. From this, your immune system learns to recognize the live virus.
Is it safe to have mRNA making parts of a virus in our body?
Unlike most vaccines we grew up with, the mRNA vaccine is pretty unique. It differs from vaccinations like polio or chickenpox, that use live, weakened virus; or vaccinations that use inactivated virus, like the flu and rabies vaccines. This new era of vaccine medicine only delivers mRNA.
The mRNA molecule carries instructions for only one thing—the virus’s spike protein. The mRNA can’t change or edit our DNA. In fact, the mRNA never even comes close to our DNA.
Compare this to when we’re infected with a virus, like Coronavirus. When we’re feeling sick from the common cold, or the flu, or SARS2, the virus injects its RNA into our cells. The virus’s mRNA contains instructions for 8-50 proteins that allow it to replicate.
The vaccine, on the other hand, is ONLY giving instructions for one tiny part, the spike protein. The spike protein can’t do anything by itself. Well, anything besides triggering our immune cells to catalog them for future. It’s an ideal target for our immune system since it sticks out from the surface of the actual virus.
Once our body has created antibodies to the spike protein, our immune system is prepared to quickly recognize real viral invaders.
But, what else is in the vaccination?
You might be asking, well… what ELSE is in the vaccine? Most of the liquid in the vaccine is water. Beyond that, it’s a mix of salts and sugars that help keep the vaccine stable. There are no preservatives, latex, or parts made from eggs.
Want to Use the COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Animation?
We thought you might ask… can you use the animation on your website or in your outreach material? As a public service, we’re encouraging others to use the animation. To do so, you can find the mRNA vaccine animation in our gallery as well as the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine infographic, available when you join our science communication advocate family by signing up for our newsletter.
How did we make the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine animation?
We’re so glad you asked! We’re working on a separate article that gives a little behind-the-scene look at how the animation was created. If you’re interested in this sort of content, please let us know in the comments!
Resources for COVID-19 facts
Have more questions? Here is a great resource that helps answer many common misunderstandings about the mRNA vaccine. As well as other trusted resources for data from hard-working scientists.
- World Health Organization
- US Center for Disease Control Covid Facts
- Love protein structures as much as we do? Check out the resources at the Protein Databank for COVID-19.