As the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Penn Medicine last year, Penn Today reported with great pride, “It was mRNA research conducted at Penn—by Drew Weissman, a professor of Infectious Diseases, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct associate professor—that helped pave the way for the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID vaccines.” While Weissman and Karikó are coronavirus vaccine heroes these days, Dr. David Scales — who studied under Weissman and Karikó 20 years ago as they worked on mRNA vaccines aimed to fight HIV — recalls How Our Brutal Science System Almost Cost Us A Pioneer Of mRNA Vaccines.
“When I got my own [COVID vaccine] shot,” Scales writes, “I felt an added emotion: awe. You see, I witnessed some of the early scientific heartbreaks that came before the historic vaccine victories. And I found myself simply awestruck by the scientists I knew who persevered in spite of our system of scientific research. […] While Weissman was an expert at designing experiments, I remember him most for his generosity. He made sure all contributors in the lab shared the credit, from the lab tech and lowly undergrad all the way to fellow researcher Karikó. Still, Karikó was struggling. Her science was fantastic, but she was less adept at the competitive game of science. She tried again and again to win grants, and each time, her applications were rejected. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, she suffered the academic indignity of demotion, meaning she was taken off the academic ladder that leads to becoming a professor. […] But [Karikó] stuck to her passions. She was too committed to the promise of mRNA to switch to other, perhaps more easily fundable projects. Eventually, the university stopped supporting her.”
“Academic science failed Karikó. But when she contacted me in 2015, I saw she had moved to the private sector, a common path for researchers when a university stops offering support. I was glad to see she had landed on her feet. And now, I watch in awe, like the rest of the world, as the technology she helped developed leads to one of the most spectacular victories in the history of science — a vaccine for a deadly pandemic developed in less than one year. So, my vaccination day was an emotional one. As the lipid-encapsulated mRNA molecules went into my arm, I reminisced about Kati and Drew, and the lab circa 2000. And I thought: You were right, Kati. You were right.”
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