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The MIT scientists behind the Moderna vaccine

Decades of research and bold entrepreneurship paved the way for the vaccine’s “overnight” success.

February 23, 2021
MIT President L.Rafael ReifMIT President L.Rafael Reif
Simon Simard

By the time you read this, I hope the breakthrough efforts of brilliant scientists will have stemmed the tide of covid-19 and lessened its devastating effects. But the past year has defied prediction, and as I write this letter in the early days of 2021, I hesitate to guess what the spring will hold. We can certainly all take pride, however, in the fact that MIT people have been a vital force in fighting this deadly pandemic—and no example stands out more than the pioneering work to bring forth an anti-covid vaccine. 

Like the other firms that developed successful vaccines, Moderna has quickly become a household name, and to the general public its mRNA vaccine appeared to be an overnight success. But as MIT readers will naturally understand, it was the product of decades of rigorous research, combined with bold entrepreneurship. And MIT people, places, and ideas were central to its development. 

The origins of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines can be found in the early days of biotech—before Kendall Square was known as “the most innovative square mile on the planet.” In the 1970s, at MIT’s Center for Cancer Research, Phil Sharp discovered RNA splicing and revealed the potential of mRNA. Now an Institute Professor and Nobel laureate, Phil recalls, “I’ve been involved in biotech almost since the word was invented. We had a new science, and we knew it would impact the world.”

In the 1980s, Moderna cofounder Bob Langer, PhD ’74, was pioneering new ways to deliver medicines, including RNA—work that ultimately contributed to the development of the new vaccine. But the early years included lots of discouragement. As Bob, now an Institute Professor as well, remembers it, “Everybody told us it was impossible, and my first nine grants were rejected … I found over 200 ways to get it to not work. But then eventually I did find a way to get it to work.” 

Noubar Afeyan, PhD ’87, another cofounder of Moderna and its chairman, got into biotech after earning his doctorate in biochemical engineering. Since then, he has helped found dozens of startups, operating on the belief that scientists should start not by looking at problems they want to solve, but by coming up with “unreasonable” solutions—and figuring out how to realize them.

Making an impact. Refusing to give up despite daunting setbacks. Envisioning impossible solutions. Sound familiar? The contributions of these three notable members of our community reflect the essential mission and character of MIT.

As the pandemic persists, we continue to advance that mission under tremendous strain, painfully aware that we cannot know what lies around the corner. But we can find great inspiration in the vital and varied contributions from the people of MIT to the fight against covid-19.