January 4, 2024

Morphological Characterization of Self-Amplifying mRNA Lipid Nanoparticles

NIS Mountain Hero

Lipid nanoparticles encapsulating self-amplifying mRNAs (SAMs) have immense potential as therapeutic and prophylactic vaccines, as the self-amplifying nature of SAMs dramatically lowers the required initial mRNA dose and consequently reduces adverse effects in patients.

The mRNA technology has emerged as a rapid modality to develop vaccines during pandemic situations with the potential to protect against endemic diseases. The success of mRNA in producing an antigen is dependent on the ability to deliver mRNA to the cells using a vehicle, which typically consists of a lipid nanoparticle (LNP). Self-amplifying mRNA (SAM) is a synthetic mRNA platform that, besides encoding for the antigen of interest, includes the replication machinery for mRNA amplification in the cells. Thus, SAM can generate many antigen encoding mRNA copies and prolong expression of the antigen with lower doses than those required for conventional mRNA. This work describes the morphology of LNPs containing encapsulated SAM (SAM LNPs), with SAM being three to four times larger than conventional mRNA. We show evidence that SAM changes its conformational structure when encapsulated in LNPs, becoming more compact than the free SAM form. A characteristic “bleb” structure is observed in SAM LNPs, which consists of a lipid-rich core and an aqueous RNA-rich core, both surrounded by a DSPC-rich lipid shell. We used SANS and SAXS data to confirm that the prevalent morphology of the LNP consists of two-core compartments where components are heterogeneously distributed between the two cores and the shell. A capped cylinder core–shell model with two interior compartments was built to capture the overall morphology of the LNP. These findings provide evidence that bleb two-compartment structures can be a representative morphology in SAM LNPs and highlight the need for additional studies that elucidate the role of spherical and bleb morphologies, their mechanisms of formation, and the parameters that lead to a particular morphology for a rational design of LNPs for mRNA delivery.


Thelen, J. L., Leite, W., Urban, V. S., O’Neill, H., Grishaev, A., Curtis, J. E., Krueger, S., & Castellanos, M. M. (2023). Morphological Characterization of Self-Amplifying mRNA Lipid Nanoparticles. ACS Nano. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.3c08014

Thelen, J. L., Leite, W., Urban, V. S., O’Neill, H., Grishaev, A., Curtis, J. E., Krueger, S., & Castellanos, M. M.
NIS Mountain Hero