Science Yields the Gift of Hope

by Jamie Vernon | Dec 15, 2020

Jamie Vernon

Yesterday, Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, became the first non-clinical trial subject in the United States to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that has taken more than 300,000 American lives. By Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a second vaccine produced by Moderna. News of the vaccines offers a glimmer of hope in a year that has been plagued by hardship and suffering brought on by an otherwise highly flawed national response to the pandemic. 

From the public’s perspective, the research and development that led to these new vaccines happened at a record setting pace, bringing with it the promise of relief from the pandemic. Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. federal program that enabled this breakthrough, was only announced on May 15, 2020. The strategy involved an unusual investment of $10 billion in several companies to simultaneously promote mass production of multiple vaccines. Although Pfizer did not accept Warp Speed funding, their “Project Lightspeed” was motivated by an advance purchase of 100 million doses of the vaccine for $2 billion. Despite such a massive investment, producing a vaccine in such a short time seemed improbable. Yet, the scientists rose to the challenge and delivered highly effective vaccines with unprecedented speed.  

The funded companies took distinct approaches to develop the vaccine, and the most successful strategy has proven to be a relatively new technology based on mRNA. Both BioNTech and Moderna designed vaccines that rely on injection of RNA to stimulate an immune response in the body. While the technology underpinning these vaccines is quite new, the process that resulted in these remarkable medical advances has actually taken more than 100 years with contributions from countless, diverse scientists and society’s unwavering commitment to scientific discovery. 

To provide some context, the following milestones paved the way to this pivotal moment: 

Early 1900s – RNA was discovered.
1930s – RNA localization in the cell was refined.
1950s – Francis Crick at Cambridge University proposed the “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology,” which assigned a function of RNA as the template for protein production in the cell.
1955-1957 – Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat, Bea Singer, and Robley C Williams at the University of California, Berkeley demonstrated that RNA was involved in viral infectivity.
1960s – Researchers characterized the role of messenger RNA and elucidated the genetic code.
1965 – David Tyrrell at the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council discovered the first human coronavirus, identified by a crown-like surface morphology. 
1978 - Katalin Karikó began investigating RNA in Hungary.
1989 - Katalin Karikó wrote her first NIH grant proposal as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to use mRNA as a therapeutic. 
1990 – John Wolff, Phil Felgner and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that native RNA could be injected directly into muscle in mice to express proteins.
1990s - Peter Lijestrom at the Karolinska Institute used self-amplifying viral replicons to reduce the amount of material required to raise an immune response.
1994 – X. Zhou and Peter Berglund at the Karolinska Institute published the first evidence that an RNA vaccine could elicit both humoral and cellular immune response against a pathogen.
2005 - Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that modified nucleosides allowed synthetic RNA to circumvent the human immune system.
2008 - Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci co-founded BioNTech and licensed Karikó and Weissman’s technology to create personalized vaccines that teach the immune system to eliminate cancer cells.
2010 - Derrick Rossi, Robert Langer, Noubar Afeyan, and another physician-researcher formed Moderna, a new word created by combining modified and RNA, to deliver an entirely new drug category to the pharmaceutical market. 
2013 – Novartis (with funding from DARPA and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, BARDA) partnered with Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics and Synthetic Genomics Vaccines teams to raise neutralizing antibodies in mice against a synthetic RNA based on the Chinese H7N9 viral genome sequence.

This history reminds us that science is a continuum that creates opportunities as it progresses. While few could have predicted the challenges we would face due to COVID-19, it is entirely predictable that a strong research enterprise through industry, philanthropy, and federal funding has made it possible to defeat this virus. Sigma Xi is proud to have at the heart of its mission the goal of maintaining a strong research enterprise to ensure that no technical problem goes unsolved and no call to action goes unanswered. Though the road ahead is long and winding, thanks to the research community, past and present, the future looks promising. 

According to a recent public poll conducted by ScienceCounts, a nonprofit organization working to strengthen public support for science, 63% of respondents said when they hear the word “science,” “hope” comes to mind. These results suggest that scientists are in the business of providing hope. During this time of the year and under these circumstances, it’s entirely appropriate to embrace that role.

Happy holidays!


Jamie L. Vernon
Sigma Xi Executive Director and CEO

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