Science is a human enterprise

Prof. Joel Eissenberg, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Arguably *the* transformative scientific innovation of the past two years was the development and deployment of mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. But like any innovation, there is a long unsung history, with lots of players nobody heard of. Since the Nobel Prize in Medicine is likely to go to mRNA vaccines next month, there’s plenty of chatter about who will be named (maximum of three).

Here’s a history of mRNA vaccines that appeared in this week’s Nature. It highlights both the key enabling discoveries and the many stumbles along the way. You’ll also learn where “Moderna” got its name.

This quote by Matt Winkler, who founded one of the first RNA-focused lab supply companies, ‘Ambion,’ in Austin, Texas, in 1989, resonated with me:

“RNA was so hard to work with. If you had asked me back [then] if you could inject RNA into somebody for a vaccine, I would have laughed in your face.”

I’ve been working with mRNA and gene expression for over 40 years and I would have had the same reaction. As did the many pharma execs over the years. OTOH, many investments of time and money were premature and were sunk costs for innovators at the time.

I don’t know how this reads if you don’t understand the jargon, but I hope it is entertaining regardless. When people wonder why drug development is slow and drugs are expensive, this is part of the reason.

“The tangled history of mRNA vaccines,” (, Elle Dolgin