Algorithm for optimized mRNA design improves stability and immunogenicity


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Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines are being used to combat the spread of COVID-19 (refs. 1 – 3 ), but they still exhibit critical limitations caused by mRNA instability and degradation, which are major obstacles for the storage, distribution and efficacy of the vaccine products 4 . Increasing secondary structure lengthens mRNA half-life, which, together with optimal codons, improves protein expression 5 . Therefore, a principled mRNA design algorithm must optimize both structural stability and codon usage. However, owing to synonymous codons, the mRNA design space is prohibitively large—for example, there are around 2.4 × 10 632 candidate mRNA sequences for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This poses insurmountable computational challenges. Here we provide a simple and unexpected solution using the classical concept of lattice parsing in computational linguistics, where finding the optimal mRNA sequence is analogous to identifying the most likely sentence among similar-sounding alternatives 6 . Our algorithm LinearDesign finds an optimal mRNA design for the spike protein in just 11 minutes, and can concurrently optimize stability and codon usage. LinearDesign substantially improves mRNA half-life and protein expression, and profoundly increases antibody titre by up to 128 times in mice compared to the codon-optimization benchmark on mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and varicella-zoster virus. This result reveals the great potential of principled mRNA design and enables the exploration of previously unreachable but highly stable and efficient designs. Our work is a timely tool for vaccines and other mRNA-based medicines encoding therapeutic proteins such as monoclonal antibodies and anti-cancer drugs 7 , 8 .
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Key words
mrna design,immunogenicity,algorithm
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