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Local Nobel Prize Winner Hopes COVID Vaccine RNA Technology Can Fight Other Diseases

BOSTON (CBS) -- Many experts have hailed the fast development of COVID-19 vaccines as a miracle of modern medicine. The science behind it could pave the way to revolutionary treatments for a number of crippling diseases.

Less than a year after the coronavirus changed the way we live people are now being immunized with proven vaccines that experts say will turn the tide on the pandemic.

Local Nobel Prize winner Dr. Craig Mello knows the power genetics has to change the course of the future of medicine.

Unlike older vaccines like Polio that use part of the actual virus, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines inject manufactured genetic material called messenger RNA, that brings information to the body to help fight off coronavirus. "It's a relatively harmless piece of information. It can't do anything by itself, but it can education your immune system," explained Mello, a professor of molecular medicine at UMass Medical School in Worcester.

Dr. Mello knows all about the power of RNA. He and his partner, Andrew Fire, won a Nobel Prize for discovering a different way of using this genetic material to trick the body. "In our case, we are making an interfering RNA, that enters a cellular search engine, gets into the cell and finds the target RNA, and turns it off," Mello explained.

According to Mello, both messenger RNA and his interfering RNA, what he calls two sides of the same coin, are game-changers. "There's a tremendous potential for developing therapies that change the course of disease and improve health," he said.

Ever wonder why some people can eat sausage and bacon every day and still live a long and healthy life?

"It was found a gene mutation that when you have it, your cholesterol levels are super low," Mello explained. Scientists are studying the idea of using silencing RNA to create that change to lower the artery-clogging cholesterol in the blood. If it works, it could potentially eliminate the need for millions of people to take statin drugs.

But Mello also has his sights on diseases with no cure. "I really want to make a difference in some of these diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's. I think we've got some exciting opportunities now to change the course of those devastating types of illnesses," he said.

Mello believes the answers are out there, but he's worried about stumbling blocks on the other end of the microscope: a shortage of American students interested in science and money to fund the research so that we will be ready for the next pandemic. "We need young people who have that pioneering and entrepreneurial curiosity to make this exploration happen.

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