A lot of people are reading the Wired story about the background of the messenger RNA (mRNA) science that underlies the new COVID-19 vaccines: “How mRNA went from a scientific backwater to a pandemic crusher”.
The story focuses on Katalin Karikó, who played a key role in some of the development of mRNA as a therapeutic vehicle. Her professional struggles are revealing about the difficulty in pursuing basic research avenues even in academic biomedical science. The lack of recognition continued even as the potential of commercialization started to emerge.
Karikó has been at the helm of BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine development. In 2013, she accepted an offer to become Senior Vice President at BioNTech after UPenn refused to reinstate her to the faculty position she had been demoted from in 1995. “They told me that they’d had a meeting and concluded that I was not of faculty quality,” she said. ”When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.’”
Now, BioNTech is a household name, following reports last month that the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine it has co-developed with Pfizer works with more than 95 per cent efficacy. Along with Moderna, it is set to supply billions of doses around the globe by the end of 2021.
I’d like to see broader reporting on this background. Karikó’s path is illustrative of some of the difficulties of academic careers, particularly in biomedical fields where career progression is tied to success in grant funding.