“Part of the history of messenger RNA is hidden today”, says the author of a book on the subject

Everything, you will know everything about messenger RNA! Two cousins ​​passionate about biology publish, this Thursday, The Messenger’s Marathon*, a book devoted to the history of this new vaccine technology used in the fight against the Covid-19 epidemic.

With a clearly stated ambition: to restore to European researchers the notoriety of this exceptional discovery, while the Americans claim paternity. Interview with one of the two authors, Jérôme Lemonnier, senior executive in the civil service, in Lille, in the North.

Why did you start writing this book?

I am not a biologist by training. However, my father was a veterinarian and my mother a pharmacist-biologist, which meant that I was a bit “booze-up” on the subject. Like everyone else, I became interested in new messenger RNA vaccine technologies, at the end of 2020, as soon as the media started talking about them. Which gave me the opportunity to talk a lot with my cousin Nicolas, whose father, François Lemonnier, was a doctor and research professor in immunology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. He also participated in the development of the first Franco-German patents on messenger RNA vaccines.

The cover of the book. – The Messenger’s Marathon

The objective was to restore some truth about the origin of this technology…

Absolutely. Nicolas stayed in contact with Steve Pascolo, one of the pioneers in the field, who was one of his father’s PhD students, in 1998, before leaving for Germany, where he co-founded the biotech CureVac. But Steve Pascolo is the first researcher to have carried out a clinical trial on humans in 2003. And in 2004, he wrote an article on the use of messenger RNA for vaccine purposes. However, this part of the story is now hidden.

Why does the United States also claim this discovery?

Because two American researchers from the University of Pennsylvania developed modified messenger RNA in 2005. Originally, this modification was made to suppress the immune response, therefore with a view to opposing vaccination. However, this modified messenger RNA is currently used for the two vaccines from BioNTech, i.e. Pfizer, and Moderna. Nevertheless, studies carried out for several years in infectiology and cancerology have demonstrated that unmodified messenger RNA also induces a good immune response. So modification is not the be-all and end-all of mRNA vaccination, as the book demonstrates. In Germany, CureVac is also working on an unmodified messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19.

The authors of the book.
The authors of the book. – Gilles Charrot

How did you work with your cousin?

My initial interest was to see to what extent the first French patents could exempt France from paying royalties for patents filed by the Americans. But, with Nicolas, we quickly changed perspective. For six months, we then carried out in-depth interviews with the main French experts in messenger RNA: in particular Steve Pascolo and Chantal Pichon. These discussions have become a book that aims to be scientific, but also very educational, with a little humor provided by the drawings of Gilles Charrot. We also draw up an economic analysis on the levers necessary for the emergence of such a technology which, in our opinion, should have many other therapeutic outlets in the years to come.

How to explain the distrust against this messenger RNA, but also more generally against scientists, which has taken hold in France since the start of the health crisis?

Many events rushed one after the other. The media changed topics regularly, which does not help their understanding. It takes time to dig, to go beyond information. I think the media lack the time to investigate and thus have an educational role that would surely have reassured the population. I hope that this book will be able to erase the fears vis-à-vis the messenger RNA.

* The messenger marathon, history of messenger RNA vaccines, EcoSciences Editions, 248 pages, 22 euros.

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