05 May 2021

STAT: “The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”

And even though the studies by Karikó and Weissman went unnoticed by some, they caught the attention of two key scientists — one in the United States, another abroad — who would later help found Moderna and Pfizer’s future partner, BioNTech.

Derrick Rossi, a native of Toronto who rooted for the Maple Leafs and sported a soul patch, was a 39-year-old postdoctoral fellow in stem cell biology at Stanford University in 2005 when he read the first paper. Not only did he recognize it as groundbreaking, he now says Karikó and Weissman deserve the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

If anyone asks me whom to vote for some day down the line, I would put them front and center, he said. That fundamental discovery is going to go into medicines that help the world.

Meanwhile BioNTech has often acted like the anti-Moderna, garnering far less attention.

In part, that was by design, said Sahin. For the first five years, the firm operated in what Sahin called “submarine mode”, issuing no news releases, and focusing on scientific research, much of it originating in his university lab. Unlike Moderna, the firm has published its research from the start, including about 150 scientific papers in just the past eight years.

In 2013, the firm began disclosing its ambitions to transform the treatment of cancer and soon announced a series of eight partnerships with major drug makers. BioNTech has 13 compounds in clinical trials for a variety of illnesses but, like Moderna, has yet to get a product approved.

Damian Garde & Jonathan Saltzman

Global crises can often accelerate innovation and technological progress. This time around, the coronavirus pandemic has surfaced biotech research being developed for years, relatively unknown to the broader public.

Its potential is far greater than the current, highly effective, vaccines against COVID-19: researchers are also working on a universal influenza vaccine, which could theoretically eliminate the need for yearly flu vaccinations, vaccines against malaria and HIV, which is notoriously hard to vaccinate against because of its high mutation rate and how it attacks the immune system. Personally, I am most excited by the potential for cancer immunotherapy, one of BioNTech’s first lines of research. With the large manufacturing capacity commissioned to produce COVID-19 vaccines, it should be relatively straightforward to produce these other vaccines if and when they will pass final approval. By the end of the decade, I expect many new treatments to be widely available, vastly improving our quality of life – provided we can also deflect the antivaxxer opposition…

The mRNA technology at the heart of two Covid-19 shots has been decades in the making. Now it may soon be used to fight cancer and HIV.

Related, an interesting profile of Dr. Katalin Karikó, a researcher who focused her career on messenger RNA, laying the foundation for its use in vaccines:

Dr. Langer thinks it was Dr. Karikó who saved him — from the kind of thinking that dooms so many scientists.

Working with her, he realized that one key to real scientific understanding is to design experiments that always tell you something, even if it is something you don’t want to hear. The crucial data often come from the control, he learned — the part of the experiment that involves a dummy substance for comparison.

There’s a tendency when scientists are looking at data to try to validate their own idea, Dr. Langer said. The best scientists try to prove themselves wrong. Kate’s genius was a willingness to accept failure and keep trying, and her ability to answer questions people were not smart enough to ask.

Gina Kolata

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