In 1995, the University of Pennsylvania demoted one of its professors. Katalin Kariko was 40 at the time. She had a grand vision to turn mRNA, a fledgling technology, into a silver bullet to fight disease. What she couldn’t find, though, was sponsors to fund her research.
The government, corporates and even her colleagues found Kariko’s work “too far-fetched,” says a recent article in Stat. And with no money coming in, “her bosses saw no point in pressing on.”
But time has proved Kariko right. The two most effective Covid vaccines so far – by Pfizer and Moderna – are based on the technology she developed over the years. Derrick Rossi, one of Moderna’s co-founders (he has left the company) says she and her collaborator Drew Weissman deserve the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Of all the mRNA pioneers, Kariko has trudged the farthest to see this day. She was a scientist working on synthesizing RNA at the University of Szeged in Hungary, her home country. One day in 1985, she sold her car on the black market, stuffed the $1,200 she got into a teddy bear, flew to the US with her engineer husband and two-year-old daughter, and never looked back.
Not when the university demoted her. Not when cancer tapped her shoulder. “Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments,” she told herself. Her grit and work ethic rubbed off on her daughter Susan Francia, who won rowing golds for the US at the Beijing and London Olympics.
Together with Weissman, Kariko removed the hurdle that had stopped mRNA from becoming a useful technology. The core idea was that lab-made ‘messenger RNA’ or mRNA could be used to order cells to make any protein – be it a drug, an enzyme or antibodies against a virus.
The problem was that the body rejected synthetic RNA violently. Instead of curing, the body’s reaction “could make the therapy a health risk for some patients.” Kariko and Weissman fixed it by tweaking one of the four building blocks of mRNA so that it would sneak into cells without an adverse reaction.
They published their research in 2005, and it slowly came to the attention of other scientists, some of whom went on to start Moderna (short for Modified RNA), and others who started Pfizer’s German vaccine partner BioNTech (short for Biopharmaceutical New Technologies).
Meet the Turks
Kariko herself has been a senior vice president at BioNTech since 2013 where she has kindred spirits for company. Its now-billionaire founders, Ugur Sahin and his wife Özlem Türeci, are first-generation entrepreneurs. Scientists at heart, they still live in a “modest apartment” near their office, and cycle to work. “They do not own a car,” says The New York Times.
Sahin was born in Turkey and moved to Cologne as a 4-year-old with his parents who had found work at a Ford factory there. He became a doctor and researched immunotherapy in tumour cells.
Türeci was born to a Turkish physician father in Germany. She had hoped to become a nun, says the NYT, but ended up studying medicine, which brought her and Sahin together. Like Kariko, who The Guardian says, realised one year “that she had worked every day until then, including New Year’s Day, and occasionally slept in the office too,” Sahin and Türeci are workaholics. They went straight to their lab after they were married.
As researchers, the couple focused on drugs to treat cancer using monoclonal antibodies before moving on to other technologies, including mRNA, which has become their claim to fame this year. Two years ago, Sahin told a conference in Berlin that the technology might be key to quickly developing a vaccine for a new pandemic. His words have proved prophetic, and he knows that few companies have the “capacity and competence” to do it as fast as BioNTech.
When China published the new coronavirus’s genetic code in January, the team at BioNTech set to work making an mRNA vaccine for it, leaving the manufacturing, testing and distribution to its bigger partner Pfizer.
Yet, Sahin is an unusual CEO, says Pfizer chief Albert Bourla. “He cares only about science. Discussing business is not his cup of tea,” he told the NYT. So much so that BioNTech has not finalised the financial details of its partnership with Pfizer.
“Trust and personal relationship is so important,” says Sahin. And living the simple life: when their vaccine’s efficacy data came out, Sahin and Türeci “marked the moment by brewing Turkish tea at home.”
And the Greek
There’s Bourla the Greek, too. Like the others, Pfizer’s CEO is a scientist and immigrant. He’s given 25 years to the company, and unusually for an executive, he seems to place the independence of his scientists above money. Pfizer did not accept government funds for developing the vaccine with BioNTech, to “shield the drug giant from politics,” says Stat.
“I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy,” Bourla said. “When you get money from someone, that always comes with strings.”