The long road to the flash success of messenger RNA

The book. In an ideal editorial world, this book would have won the Nobel Prize. More exactly, its subject announced in its title, The Messenger RNA Revolution, would have been awarded, at the beginning of October, the most prestigious of scientific awards, offering the work an ideal launching pad. The ace ! The Swedish Academy shunned the insolent – too insolent? – success of these innovative vaccines. However, there remains an exceptional scientific adventure, animated by extraordinary characters, obviously with considerable reach for the future of medicine: all the ingredients necessary for a good scientific story.

Journalist for the Swiss news site, Fabrice Delaye closely followed the home stretch of this saga, which led to the development, in less than a year, of two vaccines against Covid-19 . But he chose to plunge his book into the long story. It recalls the first steps, with the discovery of messenger RNA, in 1961, by three French researchers, among whom – inevitable wink – François Jacob, the father of Odile Jacob, the publisher of the book. Above all, he has the various actors tell the story of the patient, sometimes laborious construction of this building.

Thus pass a series of characters who come to tell their part of the truth. There are of course the essentials, the Katalin Kariko-Drew Weissman duo, which has been able to modify messenger RNA in order to make it resistant to the immune system, and therefore active. Or the formidable entrepreneurs who are the French Stéphane Bancel, boss of Moderna, or the Germans Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, united to the city as to the bench, founders of BioNTech. But above all, the book sheds light on lesser-known “heroes”, such as the American Robert Malone, perhaps the first to have believed, in 1987, in the therapeutic virtues of ribonucleic acid, certainly the most bitter of today. not appear in the photos. Or the Canadian Pieter Cullis, biochemical genius and serial patenter, undisputed master of lipid nanoparticles, these micro-armors without which RNA would have no chance of reaching the cells of the body.

Pitfalls, failures and toil

And that is the whole point of the book. It allows us to admire the vision, the cleverness, the enthusiasm, the will that accompany any major discovery. But it also makes us touch the forgotten mass of pitfalls, bad moves, failures, hard work, daring not always rewarded, hidden by an apparently flash success. We therefore travel in university laboratories, the corridors of Big Pharma, but above all in the world of start-ups, its colossal investments, its Homeric battles to obtain patents, its frantic quest for innovation. Fabrice Delaye thus recounts in detail the lost bet of the German biotech CureVac. She was the first to start, in the early 2000s, in the quest for a messenger RNA vaccine, she cleared the ground, structured the community, and launched the first clinical trials. But at the time of the final sprint, she collapsed, victim of her conviction to be able to go it alone and of a lost technological bet.

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The long road to the flash success of messenger RNA

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