In-Depth: How a scientist laid the groundwork for the mRNA COVID vaccines in San Diego

Early research in UTC helped lay foundation
Phil Felgner
Posted at 8:28 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-26 23:52:57-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – When the history of the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 gets written, there will be an important chapter in San Diego.

A series of experiments conducted decades ago at a fledgling biotech company on Towne Center Drive in University City has earned one scientist a prestigious international award. The journal Nature listed him as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize.

It all has to do with a small bottle of clear liquid on Dr. Phil Felgner’s desk.

“This is what worked so spectacular[ly] back at that time, back in 1984,” he said.

As a young scientist working in northern California, Dr. Felgner discovered the first lipid nanoparticle. Basically, he discovered tiny bubbles of fat that allow scientists to move DNA or RNA where they want it to go.

Labs still use his lipid nanoparticle today, called Lipofectin.

“Thermo Fisher sells this product, about 300 million dollars of it each year, to scientists around the world so that’s a testament to how widely it’s being used in laboratory research now,” Felgner said.

But back in the 1980s, drug companies didn’t see much short-term profit potential in the technology. Felgner’s first employer refused to back research on the project.

“They said gene therapy was something for the year 2020,” Felgner said with a laugh. “Amazing how right they were.”

So Felgner headed to San Diego and joined a start-up called Vical, Inc, founded by UC San Diego professors Karl Hostetler and Douglas Richman.

It was there, in 1990, that he and colleagues at Vical and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that these tiny bubbles of fat mixed with mRNA could activate cells in mice and make them start churning out proteins.

That’s more or less how today’s COVID-19 vaccines work: lipid nanoparticles carrying mRNA activate cells to start making the spike protein from the coronavirus. But it would take decades of contributions from other labs to refine the nanoparticles and the mRNA before the two were ready for humans.

“We have to put all the pieces together. And were didn’t have all the pieces back then. But we had one really interesting piece,” he said.

Last summer, Felgner was one of seven mRNA vaccine trailblazers who shared an international award from Spain called the Princess of Asturias Award.

Nature listed Felgner as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize, along with several other scientists. The journal noted that “much of the foundational intellectual property” for the mRNA vaccines dates back to claims made in 1989 by Felgner and other colleagues at Vical.

“To be in the conversation is fine,” Felgner said with a laugh. “I didn’t know about the Asturias award before, but talking to people who won both the Nobel and the Asturias, they like the Asturias.”

“Who would ever think something like this would happen to them?” he added.