Khvorova lab at UMass Medical School joins the fight against COVID-19

Anastasia Khvorova, PhD, professor of RNA therapeutics at UMass Medical School, spoke to Discover magazine last week about new efforts in her lab to develop a vaccine using RNA-based therapies against COVID-19, the disease causes by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

An RNA-based vaccine would deliver small strands of lab-created RNA to cells so that the immune system could begin producing antibodies before infection occurs. One challenge for scientists is that RNA-based therapies are fragile and delivering them to targeted cells in the body is difficult. The goal of the Khvorova lab is to develop chemical and biological molecules that allow for the distribution, retention and cellular uptake of these small RNAs into different tissue types.

In the fight against COVID-19, an RNA-based vaccine has a distinct advantage when it comes to manufacturing, said Khvorova. Live-virus vaccines take time to produce, as the virus must be methodically weakened before it is ready to be injected into humans. But this genetic sequence technique requires no such lag time, she said.

The longest part of the process, however, isn’t the time it takes to make a vaccine but clinically demonstrating that it works, said Khvorova. Researchers need to test the vaccine in stages in thousands of people to ensure that it is both safe and effective.