To whom do we owe the RNA vaccine?

The RNA vaccine would not have appeared without the millions of public and private money invested in basic science

The messenger RNA technique opens the door to a possible revolution in medical treatments

The exciting and wonderful story of the triumph of the RNA vaccine – the technology used by Pfizer and Moderna – will give rise to books, series and films whose title, without imaginative fanfare, could well be: The vaccine that saved the world.

It also lends itself to a lesson on the role of the individual and the state in the process of technological innovation. A history with a background in discoveries and inventions that have changed the world. Without the investment of public money in basic science and in projects whose immediate profitability was more than doubtful, the RNA vaccine would hardly have become a reality.

The teddy bear

The Hungarian state financed the education and early research of Katalin Karikó, a young woman obsessed since the early 1980s with RNA, the molecule that transcribes proteins in cells. It was not a field of research that will attract much interest.

When Katilin was left without support, she looked for a place to continue her work. The answer came from a public university in Pennsylvania, Temple University, in the United States. In that year 1985, it was still not easy to leave communist Hungary.

Katilin and her husband sold a second-hand Lada and raised $ 1,000 on the black market to catch a flight and start a new life in Philadelphia. “I put the bills in my two-year-old daughter’s teddy bear and sewed it up again,” he tells the Financial Times.

However, things were not easy either in the paradise of freedom and scientific research. “I’ve always been at someone’s mercy”, He says when speaking of the permanent insecurity of his career in the United States. What he never lost was his faith in the possibilities of RNA.

The mother of the RNA vaccine: researcher Katilin Karikó

A friendship born in a microfiche reader

In 1989, Katilin Karikó made the leap to one of the great private academic centers in North America, the University of Pennsylvania. From friction over the use of a microfiche reader came his collaboration with his colleague Drew weissman.

They dedicated days and nights – they both remember calls at three in the morning – to look for a formula that will prevent the destruction of artificial RNA upon introduction into an organism. This was the reason why many scientists considered research into therapeutic RNA a dead end.

It took sixteen years before they found a solution and published it in a study that went rather unnoticed in 2005. “What is this for?”Karikó was asked by the skeptical director of intellectual property at the University of Pennsylvania when he wanted to register the patent.

Neither was she offered a permanent teaching position, nor did the agreement to carry out the research come to fruition. The Hungarian researcher based in the United States ended up leaving. He now works on the board of BioNTech, the German biotech company that developed Pfizer’s RNA vaccine. Your name rings for the Nobel Prize.

The door was opened to the therapeutic use of RNA: a molecule designed to measure would introduce into the cells the instructions to make the ‘medicine’ that was needed in each case.

Green fluorescent cells

He was a young researcher at Harvard University, Derrick Rossi, who looked at the article by Karikó and Weissman and decided to apply it in their research on stem cells. The proof of success it was the green illumination of cells that had made a fluorescent protein with the messenger RNA technique developed by Kariko and Weissman.

The door was opened to the therapeutic use of RNA: a molecule designed to measure would introduce into the cells the instructions to make the ‘medicine’ that was needed in each case. This is what RNA vaccines against covid do with the coronavirus antigen.

With the backing of a private investor and a biotech entrepreneur from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Rossi and his partners created Modern (or Mode RNA, playing with the acronym for RNA in English), the laboratory that has manufactured one of the vaccines that have won the race against covid. The messenger RNA technique accelerates the entire design and production process.

DARPA, an agency born in the Cold War

But the vaccine would not have succeeded without the investment of billions of public money and the support of Moderna from the United States Government. There are discoveries that fail to be commercialized due to the high risk they entail for a private investor.

It’s not just about the massive amount of money Washington has invested in vaccine development in recent months. In Moderna’s case, it also played a key role years ago the public agency DARPA, a Pentagon department created in 1958 in response to the success of Soviet Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. DARPA was also at the origin of technological advances such as the internet and GPS.

In 2013, DARPA awarded Moderna $ 25 million to investigate a treatment for the Chikungunya virus. It was that funding that pushed the company to work on infectious diseases., a field not highly valued by investors in biotechnology. They prefer to stake their money on potentially more lucrative projects like cancer research.

A vaccine designed in two days

On January 11, 2020, Chinese researchers published the sequence of the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It was the piece they needed in Moderna. With the support of the United States National Institutes of Health, the experience gained and the knowledge accumulated in recent years about coronaviruses, Moderna scientists were able to design their vaccine project in a couple of days. Only 63 days later they already gave the first injection in humans, as detailed in this chronology.

On January 13, I had it ready to begin a development and testing process that culminated 11 months later with authorization in the United States and later in Europe, along with the other RNA vaccine from Pfizer / BioNTech. Due to their speed, production capacity and few adverse effects, both have been the winners in the race against the coronavirus and pave the way for a possible revolution in medical treatments. An unprecedented scientific breakthrough that more than one compares with the arrival of man on the Moon. And all this, as some recalcitrant liberal would say, “despite the government.”

The technology that was used to make the vaccines that saved the world would not have been developed without the constancy of Karikó and Weissman, without the previous work of dozens of scientists, without the investment commitment of Moderna or BioNTech partners, without the research climate of public and private universities and, which is certain, without the billions of public money invested in over the years in scientific adventures of uncertain future.

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