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Sometimes, the Tartars do show up

The 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, and deservedly so. I do not look forward to the re-writing of history that will inevitably come about the role that the NIH, University of Pennsylvania, and academia in general had in their work. As a reminder:

“Every night I was working: grant, grant, grant,” Karikó remembered, referring to her efforts to obtain funding. “And it came back always no, no, no.”

By 1995, after six years on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She had been on the path to full professorship, but with no money coming in to support her work on mRNA, her bosses saw no point in pressing on.

She was back to the lower rungs of the scientific academy.

“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” Karikó said.

She didn’t quit. But even when the breakthrough came, the leading journal saw it as “incremental”:

“The breakthrough, as you put it, we first sent to a Nature journal, and within 24 h, they rejected it as an incremental contribution. I started learning English only at university, so I had to look up the meaning of the word incremental! Anyway, we then sent it to Immunity, and they accepted it (3). We literally did all the work ourselves, Drew and I. Even at the age of 58, I didn’t have much help or funding to perform the experiments, so I did them with my own hands. It took us a while to publish the follow-up paper in Molecular Therapy in 2008, where we presented data on the superior translation of the pseudouridine-containing mRNA and the lack of immune activation in mice.”

The story gets more tangled from there: Karikó and Weissman co-founded a company that failed, then joined BioNTech, and in parallel Moderna started working on their own modified RNA platform, and none of it would have mattered an iota if SARS-CoV-2 hadn’t provided the unfortunate opportunity for mRNA vaccines to shine. For all of our (deserved!) ex post glorification of everyone involved, no Covid-19 — no glory.

Which reminds me very much of The Tartare Steppe’s lonely soldier Drogo who wastes away his life guarding a fortress from the barbarian hordes that don’t arrive until it is too late for him to shine in battle. How lucky for us all that humanity has enough Drogos, and how lucky for this particular pair of soldiers that their Tartars showed up on time.

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