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Whitest-ever paint could help cool Earth, study shows

 

New paint reflects 98% of sunlight as well as radiating infrared heat into space, reducing need for air conditioning

Prof Xiulin Ruan, a professor of mechanical engineering, with a sample of the paint.
Prof Xiulin Ruan, a professor of mechanical engineering, with a sample of the paint. Photograph: Jared Pike/Purdue University
 
 Environment editor

 

 
 
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The whitest-ever paint has been produced by academic researchers, with the aim of boosting the cooling of buildings and tackling the climate crisis.

The new paint reflects 98% of sunlight as well as radiating infrared heat through the atmosphere into space. In tests, it cooled surfaces by 4.5C below the ambient temperature, even in strong sunlight. The researchers said the paint could be on the market in one or two years.

 

White-painted roofs have been used to cool buildings for centuries. As global heating pushes temperatures up, the technique is also being used on modern city buildings, such as in Ahmedabad in India and New York City in the US.

Currently available reflective white paints are far better than dark roofing materials, but only reflect 80-90% of sunlight and absorb UV light. This means they cannot cool surfaces below ambient temperatures. The new paint does this, leading to less need for air conditioning and the carbon emissions they produce, which are rising rapidly.

“Our paint can help fight against global warming by helping to cool the Earth – that’s the cool point,” said Prof Xiulin Ruan at Purdue University in the US. “Producing the whitest white means the paint can reflect the maximum amount of sunlight back to space.”

Infrared image shows how a sample of the ‘whitest paint’ (the dark purple square in the middle) cools the board below ambient temperature.
An infrared image shows how a sample of the ‘whitest paint’ (the dark purple square in the middle) cools the board below ambient temperature. Photograph: Joseph Peoples/Purdue University

Ruan said painting a roof of 93 sq metres (1,000 sq ft) would give a cooling power of 10 kilowatts: “That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses.”

The new paint was revealed in a report in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. Three factors are responsible for the paint’s cooling performance. First, barium sulphate was used as the pigment which, unlike conventional titanium dioxide pigment, does not absorb UV light. Second, a high concentration of pigment was used – 60%.

 

Third, the pigment particles were of varied size. The amount of light scattered by a particle depends on its size, so using a range scatters more of the light spectrum from the sun. Ruan’s lab had assessed more than 100 different materials and tested about 50 formulations for each of the most promising. Their previous whitest paint used calcium carbonate – chalk – and reflected 95.5% sunlight.

The barium sulphate paint enables surfaces to be below the ambient air temperature, even in direct sunlight, because it reflects so much of the sun’s light and also radiates infrared heat at a wavelength that is not absorbed by air. “The radiation can go through the atmosphere, being directly lost to deep space, which is extremely cold,” said Ruan.

The researchers said the ultra-white paint uses a standard acrylic solvent and could be manufactured like conventional paint. They claim the paint would be similar in price to current paints, with barium sulphate actually cheaper than titanium dioxide. They have also tested the paint’s resistance to abrasion, but said longer-term weathering tests were needed to assess its long-term durability.

Ruan said the paint was not a risk to people’s eyesight: “Our surface reflects the sunlight diffusely, so the power going in any particular direction is not very strong. It just looks bright white, a bit whiter than snow.”

A patent for the paint has been filed jointly by the university and research team, which is now working with a large corporation towards commercialisation: “We think this paint will be made widely available to the market, in one or two years, I hope, if we do it quickly.”

Lukas Schertel, a light-scattering expert at the University of Cambridge, UK, who was not part of the research team, said: “Using paint for cooling is not new but has still a high potential to improve our society, as it is widely used. This study makes a step towards commercially relevant solutions. If further improved, I am convinced such technology can play a role in reducing carbon emissions and having a global impact.”

 
Cool roofs: beating the midday sun with a slap of white paint
Read more

Schertel said the high concentration of pigment in the paint and the relatively thick layers used raised questions of cost: “Pigment is the main cost in paint.” Ruan said his team hoped to optimise the paint so it can be used in thinner layers, perhaps by using new materials, so it will be easier to apply and lower cost.

Andrew Parnell, who works on sustainable coatings at the University of Sheffield, UK, said: “The principle is very exciting and the science [in the new study] is good. But I think there might be logistical problems that are not trivial. How many million tonnes [of barium sulphate] would you need?”

Parnell said a comparison of the carbon dioxide emitted by the mining of barium sulphate with the emissions saved from lower air conditioning use would be needed to fully assess the new paint. He also said green roofs, on which plants grow, could be more sustainable where practical.

Project Drawdown, a charity that assesses climate solutions, estimates that white roofs and green roofs could avoid between 600m and 1.1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, roughly equivalent to two to three years of the UK’s total annual emissions.

 

 
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Mindless US Academic Career System Almost Killed off the Virus Vaccine

How Our Brutal Science System Almost Cost Us A Pioneer Of mRNA Vaccines

 
Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)
Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Lately, my social media feeds have been filled with “vaxxies” — selfies of health care friends getting COVID-19 vaccines and gushing about how the shots brought them hope or relief. Many express gratitude for the science that yielded the vaccines.

When I got my own shot — after working the chaotic first surge at an understaffed hospital in March and April — I felt an added emotion: awe.

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You see, I witnessed some of the early scientific heartbreaks that came before the historic vaccine victories. And I found myself simply awestruck by the scientists I knew who persevered in spite of our system of scientific research.

The system helped lead to progress, but it also demoralized a junior researcher to the point that anyone of less grit and determination would have just given up long before the groundwork for today’s vaccines was laid.

An Existential Career Threat

Here’s my story: 20 years ago, I worked part-time in a tumble-down laboratory in a dusty corner of an old medical school building at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was an undergrad. For three years, I studied HIV replication in T-cells under researchers Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó.

These days, they are coronavirus vaccine heroes, but back then, their very early work on mRNA vaccines aimed to fight HIV. After spending my first four months in the lab on an experiment that never worked, I learned that good science is really, really hard.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I also absorbed what I later could describe as the sociology of science — how the sausage is made — and it wasn’t always pretty.

From the photo album of author David Scales (second from right), the 2001 lab team that included Katalin Karikó (third from left.)
From the photo album of author David Scales (second from right), the 2001 lab team that included Katalin Karikó (third from left.)

While Weissman was an expert at designing experiments, I remember him most for his generosity. He made sure all contributors in the lab shared the credit, from the lab tech and lowly undergrad all the way to fellow researcher Karikó.

Still, Karikó was struggling. Her science was fantastic, but she was less adept at the competitive game of science. She tried again and again to win grants, and each time, her applications were rejected.

Eventually, in the mid-1990s, she suffered the academic indignity of demotion, meaning she was taken off the academic ladder that leads to becoming a professor. We never discussed it personally because by the time I joined the lab, Karikó’s history was still only discussed in hushed tones as a cautionary tale for young scientists.

I learned that while universities pay the salaries of many of their professors in English or anthropology, they expect faculty in the medical schools to pay their own way with either clinical work or external research funding. This puts tremendous financial pressure on eager young medical researchers, sometimes leading them not to the projects that are most needed or that they are most passionate about, but to the projects that will get them funding.

Karikó lived that nightmare, but stuck to her passions. She was too committed to the promise of mRNA to switch to other, perhaps more easily fundable projects. Eventually, the university stopped supporting her.

It’s hard to describe what this moment means to people who have never worked in science at a university, but it is more than the frustration of an experiment not working or laudable work going unrecognized. It is an existential career threat. Everything you have worked for your entire life is suddenly in jeopardy. It is a forced career change on the assumption that if you can’t get the grants, you’re not a good enough scientist.

Clearly, this was a false assumption in Karikó’s case. She was a dynamo, with a passion for science that rubbed off on those around her. I remember one lab meeting where she arrived with a copy of Science or Nature magazine, absorbed in a new study that showed some cool biological feature of how cells reacted under stress. It wasn’t her area of research, yet she was still in awe of the beauty and intricacy our cells are imbued with, and her enthusiasm was infectious.

A Scientist To Her Core

She also shared jaw-dropping anecdotes about working as a scientist in the Eastern Bloc, from the cutthroat competition in school to the practice of smoking cigarettes in the lab (except when someone opened a container of very flammable ether).

For Karikó, who had persevered under those extraordinarily difficult circumstances in communist Hungary, demotion was particularly bitter. Most people in such circumstances end up leaving the university, but she pressed on.

I think she had to. Mark Doty, a poet, visited and gave a talk my senior year at Penn. Afterwards, a student and aspiring poet asked when and how Doty knew he was willing to endure the sacrifices it took to be a poet, with all the rejections, the financial struggle and the economic instability.

Doty said that he couldn’t not be a poet. He tried other things and just wasn’t happy. For him, it wasn’t a choice. Seeing Karikó get so excited about scientific findings that weren’t even related to her research, I got a similar sense about her too: she couldn’t not be a scientist. It was baked into her bones. Luckily for us, now.

It’s the secret you don’t learn in school. We know doing good science is hard. But it isn’t only difficult because divining nature’s secrets is a unique challenge. It is unbelievably, brutally difficult for all of the other non-science skills that are needed but not explicitly taught: writing grants (“grantsmanship”), getting invited to speak at conferences, building collaborative research relationships, having the political awareness to attract allies and mentors within a department or university who can help find support for you.

It’s the sociology of doing science at a university that makes science even harder than it already is. Usually, stories like Karikó’s end in obscurity and disappointment. Add in being a woman and an immigrant, and it makes her perseverance even more inspiring.

You Were Right, Kati

For me, seeing such an impressive mentor struggle so hard acted as a powerful push away from doing science. I spent a year abroad studying history and philosophy of science, learning the social processes by which scientific facts become solidified, then studied medicine and sociology.

But lately, I have found myself drawn back to science, as empirical facts are dismissed with a tweet. If anything, the problems Karikó faced have gotten worse over the past 20 years. It is high time for scientists to save science. But, at its best, science can produce beauty, wonder and, occasionally, through the hard work of very dedicated individuals, it can produce technologies that save millions of lives.

The coronavirus vaccine has demonstrated that we need good science – and good scientists – now more than ever. And we need to make sure that they stay in science, one way or another.

Academic science failed Karikó. But when she contacted me in 2015, I saw she had moved to the private sector, a common path for researchers when a university stops offering support. I was glad to see she had landed on her feet. And now, I watch in awe, like the rest of the world, as the technology she helped developed leads to one of the most spectacular victories in the history of science – a vaccine for a deadly pandemic developed in less than one year.

So, my vaccination day was an emotional one. As the lipid-encapsulated mRNA molecules went into my arm, I reminisced about Kati and Drew, and the lab circa 2000. And I thought: You were right, Kati. You were right.

The recent "vaxxie" of author David Scales (courtesy David Scales).
The recent “vaxxie” of author David Scales (courtesy David Scales).

Dr. David Scales is a physician and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. He can be found on Twitter @davidascales. The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Weill Cornell Medical College.

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The story of mRNA. And The Story of a Professor Who was Demoted by Idiotic Bosses

ANDOVER, Mass. — The liquid that many hope could help end the Covid-19 pandemic is stored in a nondescript metal tank in a manufacturing complex owned by Pfizer, one of the world’s biggest drug companies. There is nothing remarkable about the container, which could fit in a walk-in closet, except that its contents could end up in the world’s first authorized Covid-19 vaccine.

Pfizer, a 171-year-old Fortune 500 powerhouse, has made a billion-dollar bet on that dream. So has a brash, young rival just 23 miles away in Cambridge, Mass. Moderna, a 10-year-old biotech company with billions in market valuation but no approved products, is racing forward with a vaccine of its own. Its new sprawling drug-making facility nearby is hiring workers at a fast clip in the hopes of making history — and a lot of money.

In many ways, the companies and their leaders couldn’t be more different. Pfizer, working with a little-known German biotech called BioNTech, has taken pains for much of the year to manage expectations. Moderna has made nearly as much news for its stream of upbeat press releases, executives’ stock sales, and spectacular rounds of funding as for its science.

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Each is well-aware of the other in the race to be first.

But what the companies share may be bigger than their differences: Both are banking on a genetic technology that has long held huge promise but has so far run into biological roadblocks. It is called synthetic messenger RNA, an ingenious variation on the natural substance that directs protein production in cells throughout the body. Its prospects have swung billions of dollars on the stock market, made and imperiled scientific careers, and fueled hopes that it could be a breakthrough that allows society to return to normalcy after months living in fear.

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Both companies have been frequently name-checked by President Trump. Pfizer reported strong, but preliminary, data on Monday, and Moderna is expected to follow suit soon with a glimpse of its data. Both firms hope these preliminary results will allow an emergency deployment of their vaccines — millions of doses likely targeted to frontline medical workers and others most at risk of Covid-19.

There are about a dozen experimental vaccines in late-stage clinical trials globally, but the ones being tested by Pfizer and Moderna are the only two that rely on messenger RNA.

For decades, scientists have dreamed about the seemingly endless possibilities of custom-made messenger RNA, or mRNA.

Researchers understood its role as a recipe book for the body’s trillions of cells, but their efforts to expand the menu have come in fits and starts. The concept: By making precise tweaks to synthetic mRNA and injecting people with it, any cell in the body could be transformed into an on-demand drug factory.

But turning scientific promise into medical reality has been more difficult than many assumed. Although relatively easy and quick to produce compared to traditional vaccine-making, no mRNA vaccine or drug has ever won approval.

Even now, as Moderna and Pfizer test their vaccines on roughly 74,000 volunteers in pivotal vaccine studies, many experts question whether the technology is ready for prime time.

“I worry about innovation at the expense of practicality,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and an authority on vaccines, said recently. The U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program, which has underwritten the development of Moderna’s vaccine and pledged to buy Pfizer’s vaccine if it works, is “weighted toward technology platforms that have never made it to licensure before.”

Whether mRNA vaccines succeed or not, their path from a gleam in a scientist’s eye to the brink of government approval has been a tale of personal perseverance, eureka moments in the lab, soaring expectations — and an unprecedented flow of cash into the biotech industry.

It is a story that began three decades ago, with a little-known scientist who refused to quit.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Scientists can now design genetic material called mRNA to help us build immunity to certain viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.HYACINTH EMPINADO/STAT

Before messenger RNA was a multibillion-dollar idea, it was a scientific backwater. And for the Hungarian-born scientist behind a key mRNA discovery, it was a career dead-end.

Katalin Karikó spent the 1990s collecting rejections. Her work, attempting to harness the power of mRNA to fight disease, was too far-fetched for government grants, corporate funding, and even support from her own colleagues.

It all made sense on paper. In the natural world, the body relies on millions of tiny proteins to keep itself alive and healthy, and it uses mRNA to tell cells which proteins to make. If you could design your own mRNA, you could, in theory, hijack that process and create any protein you might desire — antibodies to vaccinate against infection, enzymes to reverse a rare disease, or growth agents to mend damaged heart tissue.

In 1990, researchers at the University of Wisconsin managed to make it work in mice. Karikó wanted to go further.

The problem, she knew, was that synthetic RNA was notoriously vulnerable to the body’s natural defenses, meaning it would likely be destroyed before reaching its target cells. And, worse, the resulting biological havoc might stir up an immune response that could make the therapy a health risk for some patients.

It was a real obstacle, and still may be, but Karikó was convinced it was one she could work around. Few shared her confidence.

“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.

There’s no opportune time for demotion, but 1995 had already been uncommonly difficult. Karikó had recently endured a cancer scare, and her husband was stuck in Hungary sorting out a visa issue. Now the work to which she’d devoted countless hours was slipping through her fingers.

“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó said. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”

Katalin Kariko
Katalin Karikó, a senior vice president at BioNTech overseeing its mRNA work, in her home office in Rydal, Penn.JESSICA KOURKOUNIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

In time, those better experiments came together. After a decade of trial and error, Karikó and her longtime collaborator at Penn — Drew Weissman, an immunologist with a medical degree and Ph.D. from Boston University — discovered a remedy for mRNA’s Achilles’ heel.

The stumbling block, as Karikó’s many grant rejections pointed out, was that injecting synthetic mRNA typically led to that vexing immune response; the body sensed a chemical intruder, and went to war. The solution, Karikó and Weissman discovered, was the biological equivalent of swapping out a tire.

Every strand of mRNA is made up of four molecular building blocks called nucleosides. But in its altered, synthetic form, one of those building blocks, like a misaligned wheel on a car, was throwing everything off by signaling the immune system. So Karikó and Weissman simply subbed it out for a slightly tweaked version, creating a hybrid mRNA that could sneak its way into cells without alerting the body’s defenses.

“That was a key discovery,” said Norbert Pardi, an assistant professor of medicine at Penn and frequent collaborator. “Karikó and Weissman figured out that if you incorporate modified nucleosides into mRNA, you can kill two birds with one stone.”

That discovery, described in a series of scientific papers starting in 2005, largely flew under the radar at first, said Weissman, but it offered absolution to the mRNA researchers who had kept the faith during the technology’s lean years. And it was the starter pistol for the vaccine sprint to come.

And even though the studies by Karikó and Weissman went unnoticed by some, they caught the attention of two key scientists — one in the United States, another abroad — who would later help found Moderna and Pfizer’s future partner, BioNTech.

Derrick Rossi, a native of Toronto who rooted for the Maple Leafs and sported a soul patch, was a 39-year-old postdoctoral fellow in stem cell biology at Stanford University in 2005 when he read the first paper. Not only did he recognize it as groundbreaking, he now says Karikó and Weissman deserve the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

“If anyone asks me whom to vote for some day down the line, I would put them front and center,” he said. “That fundamental discovery is going to go into medicines that help the world.”

Derrick Rossi one of the founders of Moderna
Derrick Rossi, one of the founders of Moderna, in his Newton, Mass., home. He ended his affiliation with the company in 2014.SUZANNE KREITER/THE BOSTON GLOBE

But Rossi didn’t have vaccines on his mind when he set out to build on their findings in 2007 as a new assistant professor at Harvard Medical School running his own lab.

He wondered whether modified messenger RNA might hold the key to obtaining something else researchers desperately wanted: a new source of embryonic stem cells.

In a feat of biological alchemy, embryonic stem cells can turn into any type of cell in the body. That gives them the potential to treat a dizzying array of conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to spinal cord injuries.

But using those cells for research had created an ethical firestorm because they are harvested from discarded embryos.

Rossi thought he might be able to sidestep the controversy. He would use modified messenger molecules to reprogram adult cells so that they acted like embryonic stem cells.

He asked a postdoctoral fellow in his lab to explore the idea. In 2009, after more than a year of work, the postdoc waved Rossi over to a microscope. Rossi peered through the lens and saw something extraordinary: a plate full of the very cells he had hoped to create.

Rossi excitedly informed his colleague Timothy Springer, another professor at Harvard Medical School and a biotech entrepreneur. Recognizing the commercial potential, Springer contacted Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and biomedical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On a May afternoon in 2010, Rossi and Springer visited Langer at his laboratory in Cambridge. What happened at the two-hour meeting and in the days that followed has become the stuff of legend — and an ego-bruising squabble.

Langer is a towering figure in biotechnology and an expert on drug-delivery technology. At least 400 drug and medical device companies have licensed his patents. His office walls display many of his 250 major awards, including the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers.

As he listened to Rossi describe his use of modified mRNA, Langer recalled, he realized the young professor had discovered something far bigger than a novel way to create stem cells. Cloaking mRNA so it could slip into cells to produce proteins had a staggering number of applications, Langer thought, and might even save millions of lives.

“I think you can do a lot better than that,” Langer recalled telling Rossi, referring to stem cells. “I think you could make new drugs, new vaccines — everything.”

Langer could barely contain his excitement when he got home to his wife.

“This could be the most successful company in history,” he remembered telling her, even though no company existed yet.

Three days later Rossi made another presentation, to the leaders of Flagship Ventures. Founded and run by Noubar Afeyan, a swaggering entrepreneur, the Cambridge venture capital firm has created dozens of biotech startups. Afeyan had the same enthusiastic reaction as Langer, saying in a 2015 article in Nature that Rossi’s innovation “was intriguing instantaneously.”

Within several months, Rossi, Langer, Afeyan, and another physician-researcher at Harvard formed the firm Moderna — a new word combining modified and RNA.

Springer was the first investor to pledge money, Rossi said. In a 2012 Moderna news release, Afeyan said the firm’s “promise rivals that of the earliest biotechnology companies over 30 years ago — adding an entirely new drug category to the pharmaceutical arsenal.”

But although Moderna has made each of the founders hundreds of millions of dollars — even before the company had produced a single product — Rossi’s account is marked by bitterness. In interviews with the Globe in October, he accused Langer and Afeyan of propagating a condescending myth that he didn’t understand his discovery’s full potential until they pointed it out to him.

“It’s total malarkey,” said Rossi, who ended his affiliation with Moderna in 2014. “I’m embarrassed for them. Everybody in the know actually just shakes their heads.”

Rossi said that the slide decks he used in his presentation to Flagship noted that his discovery could lead to new medicines. “That’s the thing Noubar has used to turn Flagship into a big company, and he says it was totally his idea,” Rossi said.

Afeyan, the chair of Moderna, recently credited Rossi with advancing the work of the Penn scientists. But, he said, that only spurred Afeyan and Langer “to ask the question, ‘Could you think of a code molecule that helps you make anything you want within the body?’”

Langer, for his part, told STAT and the Globe that Rossi “made an important finding” but had focused almost entirely “on the stem cell thing.”

Robert Langer
Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and MIT biomedical engineering professor, is a Moderna co-founder.PAT GREENHOUSE/THE BOSTON GLOBE

Despite the squabbling that followed the birth of Moderna, other scientists also saw messenger RNA as potentially revolutionary.

In Mainz, Germany, situated on the left bank of the Rhine, another new company was being formed by a married team of researchers who would also see the vast potential for the technology, though vaccines for infectious diseases weren’t on top of their list then.

A native of Turkey, Ugur Sahin moved to Germany after his father got a job at a Ford factory in Cologne. His wife, Özlem Türeci had, as a child, followed her father, a surgeon, on his rounds at a Catholic hospital. She and Sahin are physicians who met in 1990 working at a hospital in Saarland.

The couple have long been interested in immunotherapy, which harnesses the immune system to fight cancer and has become one of the most exciting innovations in medicine in recent decades. In particular, they were tantalized by the possibility of creating personalized vaccines that teach the immune system to eliminate cancer cells.

Both see themselves as scientists first and foremost. But they are also formidable entrepreneurs. After they co-founded another biotech, the couple persuaded twin brothers who had invested in that firm, Thomas and Andreas Strungmann, to spin out a new company that would develop cancer vaccines that relied on mRNA.

That became BioNTech, another blended name, derived from Biopharmaceutical New Technologies. Its U.S. headquarters is in Cambridge. Sahin is the CEO, Türeci the chief medical officer.

“We are one of the leaders in messenger RNA, but we don’t consider ourselves a messenger RNA company,” said Sahin, also a professor at the Mainz University Medical Center. “We consider ourselves an immunotherapy company.”

Like Moderna, BioNTech licensed technology developed by the Pennsylvania scientist whose work was long ignored, Karikó, and her collaborator, Weissman. In fact, in 2013, the company hired Karikó as senior vice president to help oversee its mRNA work.

But in their early years, the two biotechs operated in very different ways.

In 2011, Moderna hired the CEO who would personify its brash approach to the business of biotech.

Stéphane Bancel was a rising star in the life sciences, a chemical engineer with a Harvard MBA who was known as a businessman, not a scientist. At just 34, he became CEO of the French diagnostics firm BioMérieux in 2007 but was wooed away to Moderna four years later by Afeyan.

Moderna made a splash in 2012 with the announcement that it had raised $40 million from venture capitalists despite being years away from testing its science in humans. Four months later, the British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca agreed to pay Moderna a staggering $240 million for the rights to dozens of mRNA drugs that did not yet exist.

Moderna
Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel at the company’s offices in Cambridge, Mass.ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR STAT

The biotech had no scientific publications to its name and hadn’t shared a shred of data publicly. Yet it somehow convinced investors and multinational drug makers that its scientific findings and expertise were destined to change the world. Under Bancel’s leadership, Moderna would raise more than $1 billion in investments and partnership funds over the next five years.

Moderna’s promise — and the more than $2 billion it raised before going public in 2018 — hinged on creating a fleet of mRNA medicines that could be safely dosed over and over. But behind the scenes the company’s scientists were running into a familiar problem. In animal studies, the ideal dose of their leading mRNA therapy was triggering dangerous immune reactions — the kind for which Karikó had improvised a major workaround under some conditions — but a lower dose had proved too weak to show any benefits.

Moderna had to pivot. If repeated doses of mRNA were too toxic to test in human beings, the company would have to rely on something that takes only one or two injections to show an effect. Gradually, biotech’s self-proclaimed disruptor became a vaccines company, putting its experimental drugs on the back burner and talking up the potential of a field long considered a loss-leader by the drug industry.

Meanwhile BioNTech has often acted like the anti-Moderna, garnering far less attention.

In part, that was by design, said Sahin. For the first five years, the firm operated in what Sahin called “submarine mode,” issuing no news releases, and focusing on scientific research, much of it originating in his university lab. Unlike Moderna, the firm has published its research from the start, including about 150 scientific papers in just the past eight years.

In 2013, the firm began disclosing its ambitions to transform the treatment of cancer and soon announced a series of eight partnerships with major drug makers. BioNTech has 13 compounds in clinical trials for a variety of illnesses but, like Moderna, has yet to get a product approved.

When BioNTech went public last October, it raised $150 million, and closed with a market value of $3.4 billion — less than half of Moderna’s when it went public in 2018.

Despite his role as CEO, Sahin has largely maintained the air of an academic. He still uses his university email address and rides a 20-year-old mountain bicycle from his home to the office because he doesn’t have a driver’s license.

Then, late last year, the world changed.

MODERNA - Norwood facility
Moderna’s facility in Norwood, Mass.ALEX HOGAN/STAT

Shortly before midnight, on Dec. 30, the International Society for Infectious Diseases, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, posted an alarming report online. A number of people in Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people in central China, had been diagnosed with “unexplained pneumonia.”

Chinese researchers soon identified 41 hospitalized patients with the disease. Most had visited the Wuhan South China Seafood Market. Vendors sold live wild animals, from bamboo rats to ostriches, in crowded stalls. That raised concerns that the virus might have leaped from an animal, possibly a bat, to humans.

After isolating the virus from patients, Chinese scientists on Jan. 10 posted online its genetic sequence. Because companies that work with messenger RNA don’t need the virus itself to create a vaccine, just a computer that tells scientists what chemicals to put together and in what order, researchers at Moderna, BioNTech, and other companies got to work.

A pandemic loomed. The companies’ focus on vaccines could not have been more fortuitous.

Moderna and BioNTech each designed a tiny snip of genetic code that could be deployed into cells to stimulate a coronavirus immune response. The two vaccines differ in their chemical structures, how the substances are made, and how they deliver mRNA into cells. Both vaccines require two shots a few weeks apart.

The biotechs were competing against dozens of other groups that employed varying vaccine-making approaches, including the traditional, more time-consuming method of using an inactivated virus to produce an immune response.

Moderna was especially well-positioned for this moment.

Forty-two days after the genetic code was released, Moderna’s CEO Bancel opened an email on Feb. 24 on his cellphone and smiled, as he recalled to the Globe. Up popped a photograph of a box placed inside a refrigerated truck at the Norwood plant and bound for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. The package held a few hundred vials, each containing the experimental vaccine.

Moderna was the first drug maker to deliver a potential vaccine for clinical trials. Soon, its vaccine became the first to undergo testing on humans, in a small early-stage trial. And on July 28, it became the first to start getting tested in a late-stage trial in a scene that reflected the firm’s receptiveness to press coverage.

The first volunteer to get a shot in Moderna’s late-stage trial was a television anchor at the CNN affiliate in Savannah, Ga., a move that raised eyebrows at rival vaccine makers.

Along with those achievements, Moderna has repeatedly stirred controversy.

On May 18, Moderna issued a press release trumpeting “positive interim clinical data.” The firm said its vaccine had generated neutralizing antibodies in the first eight volunteers in the early-phase study, a tiny sample.

But Moderna didn’t provide any backup data, making it hard to assess how encouraging the results were. Nonetheless, Moderna’s share price rose 20% that day.

Some top Moderna executives also drew criticism for selling shares worth millions, including Bancel and the firm’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks.

In addition, some critics have said the government has given Moderna a sweetheart deal by bankrolling the costs for developing the vaccine and pledging to buy at least 100 million doses, all for $2.48 billion.

That works out to roughly $25 a dose, which Moderna acknowledges includes a profit.

In contrast, the government has pledged more than $1 billion to Johnson & Johnson to manufacture and provide at least 100 million doses of its vaccine, which uses different technology than mRNA. But J&J, which collaborated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research and is also in a late-stage trial, has promised not to profit off sales of the vaccine during the pandemic.

Over in Germany, Sahin, the head of BioNTech, said a Lancet article in January about the outbreak in Wuhan, an international hub, galvanized him.

“We understood that this would become a pandemic,” he said.

The next day, he met with his leadership team.

“I told them that we have to deal with a pandemic which is coming to Germany,” Sahin recalled.

He also realized he needed a strong partner to manufacture the vaccine and thought of Pfizer. The two companies had worked together before to try to develop mRNA influenza vaccines. In March, he called Pfizer’s top vaccine expert, Kathrin Jansen.

“I asked her if Pfizer was interested in teaming up with us, and she, without any discussion, said, ‘Yes, we would love to do that,’” Sahin recalled.

Philip Dormitzer, chief scientific officer for viral vaccines at Pfizer, said developing a coronavirus vaccine is “very much in Pfizer’s comfort zone as a vaccine company with multiple vaccine products.”

Pfizer has about 2,400 employees in Massachusetts, including about 1,400 at its Andover plant, one of three making the vaccine for the New York-based company in the U.S.

Pfizer, through its partnership with BioNTech, isn’t taking any money upfront from the government. Rather, the federal government will pay the partners $1.95 billion for at least 100 million doses if the vaccine gets approved.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who rose through the ranks after more than 25 years with the company, said in a September interview with “Face the Nation” that if the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine fails, his company will absorb the financial loss. He said Pfizer opted not to take government funding up front to shield the drug giant from politics.

“I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy,” he said. “When you get money from someone, that always comes with strings.”

Top executives at Pfizer also have sold far less stock compared to Moderna since the pandemic began.

BioNTech executives haven’t sold any shares since the company went public last year, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records. Still, the soaring share prices of BioNTech and Moderna have made both Sahin and Bancel billionaires, according to Forbes.

Some experts worry about injecting the first vaccine of this kind into hundreds of million of people so quickly.

“You have all these odd clinical and pathological changes caused by this novel bat coronavirus, and you’re about to meet it with all of these vaccines with which you have no experience,” said Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an authority on vaccines.

Blood samples from volunteers
Blood samples from volunteers participating in Moderna’s Phase 3 Covid-19 vaccine trial wait to be processed in a lab at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.TAIMY ALVAREZ/AP

Several other drug makers have also developed experimental mRNA vaccines for the coronavirus, but are not as far along, including CureVac, another German biotech, and Translate Bio, which has partnered with the French vaccine giant Sanofi Pasteur.

Pfizer began its late-stage trial on July 27 — the same day as Moderna — with the first volunteers receiving injections at the University of Rochester. It announced its promising early results from that trial on Monday, and hopes to have sufficient data this month to seek emergency use authorization of the vaccine for at least some high-risk people.

Moderna may not be far behind. Its spokesperson Ray Jordan said Monday that executives suspected Pfizer would release some preliminary late-stage trial data before Moderna, in part because of the dosing schedule of the rival vaccines. Recipients of Pfizer’s vaccine get two doses three weeks apart, while recipients of Moderna’s get two doses four weeks apart.

Striking a magnanimous note, he described Pfizer’s news as “an important step for mRNA medicine.”

“We’ve said that the world needs more than one Covid-19 vaccine,” Jordan said. “We remain on track.”

Mark Arsenault of the Globe staff contributed reporting.

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Israel Sabotages Iran Nuclear Site

Analysts: Fire at Iran nuclear site hit centrifuge facility

July 3, 2020
 
 
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This photo released Thursday, July 2, 2020, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows a building after it was damaged by a fire, at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. A fire burned the building above Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, though officials say it did not affect its centrifuge operation or cause any release of radiation. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran sought to downplay the fire Thursday, calling it an “incident” that only affected an “industrial shed.” (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A fire and an explosion struck a centrifuge production plant above Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear enrichment facility early Thursday, analysts said, one of the most-tightly guarded sites in all of the Islamic Republic after earlier acts of sabotage there.

The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran sought to downplay the fire, calling it an “incident” that only affected an under-construction “industrial shed,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said. However, both Kamalvandi and Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi rushed after the fire to Natanz, a facility earlier targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus and built underground to withstand enemy airstrikes.

The fire threatened to rekindle wider tensions across the Middle East, similar to the escalation in January after a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad and Tehran launched a retaliatory ballistic missile attack targeting American forces in Iraq.

While offering no cause for Thursday’s blaze, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency published a commentary addressing the possibility of sabotage by enemy nations such as Israel and the U.S. following other recent explosions in the country.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far has tried to prevent intensifying crises and the formation of unpredictable conditions and situations,” the commentary said. But ”the crossing of red lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran by hostile countries, especially the Zionist regime and the U.S., means that strategy … should be revised.”

The fire began around 2 a.m. local time in the northwest corner of the Natanz compound in Iran’s central Isfahan province, according to data collected by a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite that tracks fires from space.

Images later released by Iranian state media show a two-story brick building with scorch marks and its roof apparently destroyed. Debris on the ground and a door that looked blown off its hinges suggested an explosion accompanied the blaze.

“There are physical and financial damages and we are investigating to assess,” Kamalvandi told Iranian state television. “Furthermore, there has been no interruption in the work of the enrichment site. Thank God, the site is continuing its work as before.”

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In Washington, the State Department said that U.S. officials were “monitoring reports of a fire at an Iranian nuclear facility.”

“This incident serves as another reminder of how the Iranian regime continues to prioritize its misguided nuclear program to the detriment of the Iranian people’s needs,” it said.

The site of the fire corresponds to a newly opened centrifuge production facility, said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

Hinz said he relied on satellite images and a state TV program on the facility to locate the building, which sits in Natanz’s northwest corner.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security similarly said the fire struck the production facility. His institute previously wrote a report on the new plant, identifying it from satellite pictures while it was under construction and later built.

Iranian nuclear officials did not respond to a request for comment about the analysts’ comments. However, any damage to the facility would be a major setback, said Hinz, who called the fire “very, very suspicious.”

“It would delay the advancement of the centrifuge technology quite a bit at Natanz,” Hinz said. “Once you have done your research and development, you can’t undo that research and development. Targeting them would be very useful” for Iran’s adversaries.

Natanz, also known as the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, is among the sites now monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency after Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That deal saw Iran agree to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

The IAEA said in a statement it was aware of reports of the fire. “We currently anticipate no impact on the IAEA’s safeguards verification activities,” the Vienna-based agency said.

Natanz became a flashpoint for Western fears about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building an underground facility at the site, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran. In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz, which Iran said would house centrifuges for its nuclear program, buried under some 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete.

Natanz today hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium. Currently, the IAEA says Iran enriches uranium to about 4.5% purity — above the terms of the nuclear deal but far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. Workers there also have conducted tests on advanced centrifuges, according to the IAEA.

The U.S. under President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, setting up months of tensions between Tehran and Washington. Iran now is breaking all the production limits set by the deal, but still allows IAEA inspectors and cameras to watch its nuclear sites.

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Natanz remains of particular concern to Tehran as it has been targeted for sabotage before. The Stuxnet malware, widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation, disrupted and destroyed centrifuges at Natanz amid the height of Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

Satellite photos show an explosion last Friday that rattled Iran’s capital came from an area in its eastern mountains that analysts believe hides an underground tunnel system and missile production sites. Iran has blamed the blast on a gas leak in what it describes a “public area.”

Another explosion from a gas leak at a medical clinic in northern Tehran killed 19 people Tuesday.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and former Iran analyst for the prime minister’s office, said he didn’t know if there was an active sabotage campaign targeting Tehran. However, he said the series of explosions in Iran feel like “more than a coincidence.”

“Theoretically speaking, Israel, the U.S. and others have an interest to stop this Iran nuclear clock or at least show Iran there’s a price in going that way,” he said. “If Iran won’t stop, we might see more accidents in Iran.”

Late Thursday, the BBC’s Persian service said it received an email prior to the announcement of the Natanz fire from a group identifying itself as the Cheetahs of the Homeland, claiming responsibility for an attack on the centrifuge production facility at Natanz. This group, which claimed to be dissident members of Iran’s security forces, had never been heard of before by Iran experts and the claim could not be immediately authenticated by the AP.

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Associated Press writers Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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Natanz blackout is Nuclear Terrorism

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

April 11, 2021
 
 
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FILE – This file photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. The facility lost power Sunday, April 11, 2021, just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster, the latest incident to strike the site amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers. Iran on Sunday described the blackout an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions as world powers and Tehran continue to negotiate over its tattered nuclear deal.

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, suspicion fell immediately on Israel, where its media nearly uniformly reported a devastating cyberattack orchestrated by the country caused the blackout.

If Israel was responsible, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the nuclear deal.

Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the American-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who once served as the country’s foreign minister, offered what appeared to be the harshest comments of his long career, which included the assassination of nuclear scientists a decade ago. Iran blames Israel for those killings as well.

He pledged to “seriously improve” his nation’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions.

Salehi’s comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility, but his words suggested a serious disruption.

“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi said.

The IAEA, the United Nations’ body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.

However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.

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Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.

While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”

It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is “penetrable,” he added.

Netanyahu later Sunday night toasted his security chiefs, with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his side on the eve of his country’s Independence Day.

“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s history, saying the country had been transformed from a position of weakness into a “world power.”

Israel typically doesn’t discuss operations carried out by its Mossad intelligence agency or specialized military units. In recent weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.

Speaking at the event Sunday night, Netanyahu urged his security chiefs to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands,” using an expression referring to Jewish strength.

Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.

“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”

The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.

The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”

On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.

Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.

The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for ensuring its stockpile never swelled to the point of allowing Iran to obtain an atomic bomb if it chose.

On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.

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Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.