Tang Prize to Launch First Documentary about Three mRNA Vaccine Developers
Since COVID-19 emerged three years ago, 6.6 million people have perished, life as we knew it was abruptly upended, and the global economy suffered a heavy blow as a consequence. The end of 2019 saw many people feel helpless in the face of aggressive outbreaks of an unknown disease. Fortunately, it took less than a year for two biotechnology companies, BioNTech and Moderna, to successfully develop SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine, giving the world a breakwater to shield itself from waves of COVID infections. The new techniques that enable the development of these vaccines should be attributed to the three laureates of the 2022 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science. To commemorate their contributions and to put together a detailed picture of the research and development of mRNA vaccine, the Tang Prize Foundation commissioned a documentary, “Saving the World with mRNA Vaccines,” featuring in-person visits to these three heroes behind the mRNA vaccines.
To film these three scientists, Drs. Katalin Kariko, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis, the production crew had to navigate many COVID-19 restrictions and travel thousands of miles to the University of Pennsylvania and the University of British Columbia to conduct face-to-face interviews and get valuable footage of their labs. It is a cinematic tale told from different angles, including the laureates’ family backgrounds, their adolescence and young adulthood, as well as their careers and research. The joys and sorrows involved in their joint medical adventure, to which most of us are oblivious, is given a presence here. There are also animations which transform obscure knowledge surrounding RNA technology, vaccinology and lipid nanoparticle (LNP) systems into popular science easily comprehensible to lay people. A fascinating film showing three laureates sharing their stories, this documentary is intended to inspire young students, budding scientists, and anyone who lived through the pandemic.
What has been most inspiring about these three heroes, as the documentary shows, are their passion for science and their perseverance to never give up. Take Dr. Kariko as an example. Studying mRNA for more than three decades and considered by many as “the mother of COVID-19 vaccine,” she is no stranger to frustration, having struggled constantly to obtain funding for her research and to even hold down a job. As a matter of fact, the position he got at BioNTech in 2013 was the first stable job she had for years. Reflecting on her experience, Dr. Kariko wants to encourage young people to focus on things they can control, and not to be beguiled by what is on the outside, because “if they look at me (on the) outside, what I was doing, they can see I was a failure,” she explains, referring to personal disappointments of being repeatedly looked down upon, getting demoted, and so forth. Only in a lab, she emphasizes, can she have everything under control.
Dr. Weissman has been working with Dr. Kariko for more than twenty years. Looking back on their collaboration, this renowned immunologist points out that when they started working together, “it was Kati and I working at a bench…It was just the two of us, because we didn’t have any grants, we didn’t have any money to hire technicians.” Very often, they would email each other during the wee hours to discuss data. After a decade’s hard work, they published two papers in 2005 and 2008 on how to solve key issues concerning RNA. The astonishing discovery, nonetheless, didn’t attract much attention in the scientific community. But they refused to give up, after seeing the real potential of RNA. The reward finally came in 2020 when they were invited to get the mRNA vaccines they developed alongside the university’s medical workers. “I think vindication is probably the right word,” Dr. Weismann says, “We were right. We spent 25 years, and it was a good thing.”
Solving the problem about mRNA was not enough. mRNA vaccine would not have worked without LNPs. As a pioneer of liposomal drug delivery systems, Dr. Cullis never thought about using LNPs a vaccine. That was until he got a call from Dr. Weissman in 2014 and agreed to a collaboration. The mRNA-LNP formulation they experimented with turned out to be a great success. Dr. Cullis was as amazed as others when he was notified of the results. “I was hoping that it was going to work, maybe 70%,” Dr. Cullis admits, “but 95%, I don’t think anybody could quite imagine that happening. That was incredible.” He adds that “for people who thought lipids were not that important, I think we showed them wrong.”
The arrival of mRNA vaccine in 2020, however out of the blue it may seem, is actually the fruit of decades-long dedication to research by generations of scientists. “Saving the World with mRNA Vaccines” tells the whole story about the journey that leads up to this medical triumph. First, Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman’s invented a way to reduce the immunogenicity of mRNA. They then worked with Dr. Cullis to use LNPs to deliver mRNA vaccine. Afterwards, a research field many hadn’t had much faith in started to shine out. Not only did USA-based Moderna and Germany-based BioNTech begin to invest in mRNA research, but BioNTech and America’s pharmaceutical giant Pfizer also cooperated to develop mRNA influenza vaccines and conducted small-scale clinical trials. That is why there is a platform of mRNA vaccines that was readily available when COVID-19 burst onto the scene.
The success of mRNA COVID vaccine means the creation of not only a new kind of vaccine but also infinite possibilities in the arena of modern medicine. In addition to the pan-coronavirus vaccine, universal influenza vaccine and various gene therapies which the laureates are working on, good news also came on 13 December 2022 when Moderna announced that new data shows combining its personalized mRNA cancer vaccine with cancer drug Keytruda can effectively reduce the recurrence of melanoma or cut its death rate.
At ___ (Taipei time) on ___, the English version of “Saving the World with mRNA Vaccines” will be premiered on the Tang Prize YouTube channel, where three documentaries about other 2022 Tang Prize laureates will also be broadcast in due course.
About the Tang Prize
With the advent of globalization, mankind has been able to enjoy the convenience brought forth by the advancement of human civilization and science. Yet a multitude of challenges, such as climate change, the emergence of new infectious diseases, wealth gap, and moral degradation, have surfaced along the way. As a response, Dr. Samuel Yin established the Tang Prize in December 2012. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. Every other year, four independent and professional selection committees, made up of many distinguished international experts and scholars, including Nobel laureates, choose from a pool of nominees who have influenced and made substantive contributions to the world, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or gender. A cash prize of NT$50 million (approx. US$1.7 million) is allocated to each category, with NT$10 million of it (approx. US$ 0.35 million) designated as a research grant to the laureate to support relevant educational projects. The hope is to encourage more people with professional knowledge and skills to address mankind’s most urgent needs in this century, and to become leading forces behind the development of human society through their outstanding research and civic engagement.
 Kentruda is a humanized monoclonal antibody against programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1). Dr. Tasuku Honjo, laureate of the inaugural Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, discovered PD-1 and subsequently identified its main function.