One of several great things about the new mRNA vaccines is that they’re so simple. They’re basically just the lipid membrane, saltwater, and the mRNA, which is so easy to synthesize that I did it myself as an undergrad. Despite all the rumors, there are far fewer opportunities for side-effects and unknowns than with traditional vaccines.
Unknowns like this. For years, flu researchers at the Wilson Lab at the University of Chicago kept seeing antibodies that were reactive to every virus they tested, and they couldn’t figure out why. It turns out the antibodies were binding to glycan, a sugar molecule found in the chicken eggs that the vaccines were being produced in.
The early polio vaccines were grown in monkey kidney cells, and about a quarter of them turned out to be contaminated with Simian Virus 40, which may increase the risk of soft-tissue cancers (still a controversial claim to this day)—so we started growing vaccines in chicken eggs instead. Almost 50 years later, we just realized this process leads to the production of antibodies for glycan.
As this is a new discovery, we don’t know what it means, if it means anything, but it’s easy to imagine that this has been making all of our egg-grown vaccines less effective than they would be otherwise, as the immune system wastes resources making antibodies to these meaningless clumps of sugar.
The point is, biology is messy and traditional vaccines are a crude technology. That we’re advancing to mRNA vaccines, with much less junk and much greater precision, is something to celebrate.
light’s long journey
from the sun into the son