Cestari: research offers hope in treating more than COVID-19

Published: 6 June 2022

Until two years ago, mRNA vaccines had never been approved. Now, Faster to produce than conventional vaccines, the potential applications of synthetic mRNA to prevent illness and treat diseases seem nearly limitless.

The COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of which rely on mRNA created in a lab, have been hailed as a medical revolution. Their success has set off a tsunami of interest in using the technology to combat a Who’s Who of modern pestilences. Targets include influenza, Zika, HIV, malaria, cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis and “Disease X,” the placeholder name given to whatever yet-to-emerge illness fuels the next global health disaster.

In early March, Moderna announced a global program called mRNA Access that will see the company share its vaccine-making recipe and ingredients with scientists working on emerging and neglected diseases. In return, those scientists will share research about the diseases they study, including potential targets for vaccines.

That’s where the fundamental science undertaken by researchers such as McGill’s Dr. Igor Cestari, Assistant Professor, Institute of Parasitology, and his colleague, Dr. Momar Ndao, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Experimental Medicine and Associate member of Institute of Parasitology, come in.

Dr. Cestari is leading a painstaking search for the best vaccine targets by slicing the DNA of the parasite that causes Chagas disease--first identified in his native Brazil--into millions of fragments and inserting those fragments into yeast. As the yeast grows, the parasite’s proteins are expressed on the surface of the yeast, allowing Dr. Cestari to bathe them in serum from the blood of Chagas patients to see what sticks. Seeing what sticks helps him to identify which proteins might make good targets for a vaccine.

He has invested nearly two years of pandemic-interrupted labour to refine his list of the top 10 to 20 proteins to target. The next step would be making his own prototype vaccine for Chagas, but if Moderna is willing to design one for him using their mRNA and his targets, development time could drop significantly.

“In theory, when I have the code, it’s as simple as sending a text message,” Dr. Cestari said, “and someone on the other side would put it in a machine to synthesize the RNA.”

 As the soft-spoken Brazilian moves around his Montreal lab, showing off petri dishes of yeast and scribbling on his white board to explain the mind-bending research he and his team are pursuing, his excitement at the thought of one day inventing a vaccine is infectious.

“You can see I’m a dreamer, right?” Dr. Cestari said. “I’m not shy of hope.”

The above is an excerpt from a Globe and Mail article by Kelly Grant. Read the full article.

Back to top