It is nothing short of stunning how quickly the COVID vaccines were brought to market. The full story, however, began much earlier in academic research labs, in the early 2000s. That research, taken into the “wild” right now, may permanently alter how we respond to future pandemics.
In the early 2000s, mRNA vaccines got a boost when a pair of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, discovered that by altering the building blocks of RNA—nucleosides—they could address some of key limitations of the technique. In a seminal 2005 paper, they reported that modified, synthetic nucleosides could both increase protein production from the mRNA and drastically suppress the immune system’s reaction to the mRNA molecules themselves. (Karikó is now a senior vice president at BioNTech.)
“I think pretty much everyone acknowledges this as the big breakthrough [for mRNA vaccines],” says Liu.
Scientists still needed a method to fortify the mRNA against rapid degradation after injection, however. Pardi, along with Karikó and Weissman, helped identify a solution: by encasing mRNA in small bubbles of fat known as lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), they were able to protect the molecule and enhance its delivery into cells.