Comb-structured mRNA vaccine tethered with short double-stranded RNA adjuvants maximizes cellular immunity for cancer treatment

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Jul 18;120(29):e2214320120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2214320120. Epub 2023 Jul 10.


Integrating antigen-encoding mRNA (Messenger RNA) and immunostimulatory adjuvant into a single formulation is a promising approach to potentiating the efficacy of mRNA vaccines. Here, we developed a scheme based on RNA engineering to integrate adjuvancy directly into antigen-encoding mRNA strands without hampering the ability to express antigen proteins. Short double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) was designed to target retinoic acid-inducible gene-I (RIG-I), an innate immune receptor, for effective cancer vaccination and then tethered onto the mRNA strand via hybridization. Tuning the dsRNA structure and microenvironment by changing its length and sequence enabled the determination of the structure of dsRNA-tethered mRNA efficiently stimulating RIG-I. Eventually, the formulation loaded with dsRNA-tethered mRNA of the optimal structure effectively activated mouse and human dendritic cells and drove them to secrete a broad spectrum of proinflammatory cytokines without increasing the secretion of anti-inflammatory cytokines. Notably, the immunostimulating intensity was tunable by modulating the number of dsRNA along the mRNA strand, which prevents excessive immunostimulation. Versatility in the applicable formulation is a practical advantage of the dsRNA-tethered mRNA. Its formulation with three existing systems, i.e., anionic lipoplex, ionizable lipid-based lipid nanoparticles, and polyplex micelles, induced appreciable cellular immunity in the mice model. Of particular interest, dsRNA-tethered mRNA encoding ovalbumin (OVA) formulated in anionic lipoplex used in clinical trials exerted a significant therapeutic effect in the mouse lymphoma (E.G7-OVA) model. In conclusion, the system developed here provides a simple and robust platform to supply the desired intensity of immunostimulation in various formulations of mRNA cancer vaccines.

Keywords: RNA engineering; cancer vaccine; mRNA delivery; mRNA vaccine; vaccine adjuvant.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adjuvants, Immunologic / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Antigens
  • Cytokines / genetics
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Neoplasms* / therapy
  • RNA, Double-Stranded* / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics


  • RNA, Double-Stranded
  • Adjuvants, Immunologic
  • Antigens
  • Cytokines
  • RNA, Messenger