In an unassuming house in rolling hills east of the Hungarian capital, a small family firm is helping oil the wheels of the world’s big pharmaceutical companies on the path to a coronavirus vaccine.
Biologist Noemi Lukacs, 71, retired to Szirak, her birth village, to establish English & Scientific Consulting (SciCons) and manufacture a genetic sensor so sensitive that a few grams can supply the entire global industry for a year.
“We produce monoclonal antibodies,” Lukacs told Reuters in the single-story house where she was born, now partly converted into a world-class laboratory. The white powder ships worldwide from here, micrograms at a time.
“These antibodies recognize double-stranded RNA [dsRNA],” she explained. DsRNA is a byproduct of viruses replicating, so its presence signals the presence of a live virus, long useful in virus-related research.
More importantly, dsRNA is also a byproduct of the process used by U.S. giant Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech to create their experimental COVID-19 vaccine which is more than 90% effective according to initial trial results last week.
And because dsRNA can be harmful to human cells, it must be filtered out from any vaccine to be used in humans. Several filtering methods exist, but the most widely used way to do quality control is to expose the vaccine to Lukacs’ antibodies.
Not only will the antibodies show if there is any dsRNA in the vaccine, they will also tell researchers how much of it is present. Only once completely freed from dsRNA can the vaccine be administered.
The result: a line of big pharma representatives outside her door.
The small company is growing rapidly, yet its revenue was only 124 million forints (just over $400,000) last year, with profits at 52 million forints. That feeds five employees and even leaves some for local charity projects in Szirak.
To Lukacs, that is just fine. The success of the RNA field, long frowned upon, is vindication enough.
Dog in the race
The former university professor followed the race to the vaccine closely and rooted especially for the contestants who look set to come first: those using modified RNA to train cells of the human body to recognize and kill the coronavirus. The RNA was her dog in the race.
The modified RNA, or mRNA, methodology is a whole new group of drugs, with the COVID vaccine the first product likely to get regulatory approval and go into mass production. But more applications are expected, which has Lukacs overjoyed.
“Once you get into the RNA field, it is an extremely exciting area,” she said, recalling decades of struggles when the rest of the scientific community did not share her excitement.
Or most of the rest, that is. Another Hungarian woman, Katalin Kariko, working across the Atlantic, patented the method that enables the use of RNA and promises to free the world not only of the coronavirus but scores of other diseases.
In the process, Kariko — now the Vice President of Germany’s BioNTech, which was first alongside U.S. giant Pfizer to break through with a vaccine earlier this month — became an early SciCons customer.
The COVID breakthrough and other RNA uses may necessitate more use of Lukacs’s antibodies as well, but they do not anticipate much of a boon.
“We would be happy to sell more of it,” said Johanna Symmons, her daughter and the small company’s chief executive. “We probably will too. But it’s not like we’ll get silly rich.”
Being part of the solution reaps its own rewards.
“We have cooperated with most vaccine manufacturers, and certainly almost all of the ones using the mRNA method,” she said with a hint of pride. “We have been a small screw in this large machine.”