Saturday, 21 November 2020

Funny How Science Works

The story of Katalin Kariko nicely illustrates how chance or serendipity plays a major role in scientific development (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/nov/21/covid-vaccine-technology-pioneer-i-never-doubted-it-would-work). She was born, 65 years ago, in Hungary where she became interested in synthesizing Ribonucleic acid (RNA), at the University of Szeged. In 1985, Kariko received an invitation to work at Temple University in Philadelphia (USA). She left Hungary with her husband, her toddler daughter and £900 hidden inside a teddy bear (from the blackmarket sale of their car). In 1989, Kariko moved to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine where she became convinced, on the basis of animal work, that synthetic Messenger-RNA (mRNA) could be a safe and reliable route for the development of vaccines. In 1998, she was joined by Drew Weissman, who was then working on HIV. They collaborated and, in 2005, discovered that they could prevent an inflammatory side-effect of injected mRNA by tweaking one of the molecule's nucleosides. As is usual, their paper got little attention at the time and their attempt to set up a company to develop mRNA in medical treatments, failed due to a lack of funding. Canadian stem cell biologist, Derrick Rossi, read their paper and got the funding to set up a Biotech company. This became Moderna in Cambridge, Massachusets. Kariko had lots of invitations and elected, in 2013, to join BioNTech, as their senior vice-President and Head of Protein Replacement therapies. In 2020, the world had the Covid-19 pandemic. The first two vaccines to be developed at the end of that same year were based on mRNA. They were from BioNTech and Moderna. mRNA only needs to cross the plasma membrane (and not the nuclear membrane) of the immune cells to trigger the production of protein identical to that in the harmless virus spikes. This protein triggers the immune response safely (it cannot be contaminated with actual virus). The treatment also does not trigger the Major Histocompatibility Complex and the mRNA is rapidly broken down after producing its action. Some people are now saying that Kariko and Weissman should get the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

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