Outrunning the next pandemic

Give the world one vaccine and we’re immune to one disease. Accelerate the creation of new medicines and you give the world a different future.

By Derek Rosenfield
Peter Kim in a white lab coat holds a small vial in his lab.

Peter Kim is the Virginia & D. K. Ludwig Professor of Biochemistry. Photo: Steve Fisch

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Peter Kim remembers when COVID-19 threw his Stanford research team into lockdown. Outside their lab, “nobody was vaccinated, people were dying, it was incredibly stressful,” he recalls. But when he asked the team for volunteers to work on a COVID vaccine, “everybody raised their hands,” says Kim, who holds the university’s Ludwig Professorship in Biochemistry.

With an eye on the pandemic’s global impact, the team would go on to set a special goal: “Our purpose was to make a COVID vaccine for poor people,” Kim says. Their solution, now in clinical trials, will be dramatically cheaper than the COVID vaccines we’ve all become familiar with. It will also be shelf-stable at body temperature for two weeks so it can leave the refrigerated supply chain and remain effective even in climates closer to the equator, making it much easier to deploy in resource-limited settings.

Meanwhile, the team has also demonstrated a whole new model for accelerating other medical solutions. Their vaccine is just one example of how Stanford’s Innovative Medicines Accelerator (IMA) is helping more researchers to close the gap between academic research and patients in need.

Where do you even begin?

Before coming to Stanford, Kim directed research at pharmaceutical giant Merck. He knows how long and winding the pipeline can be to carry untested ideas to market. Even when a winning idea might become profitable, companies are risk-averse, especially when it comes to novel approaches.

The key, says Kim, is “de-risking” your idea.

The concept of the prototype is really important.
Every university is banging on Merck’s door saying ‘Look at this idea’ or ‘This guy is the leading expert on whatever.’ But if you can say ‘We made this molecule, and it works in mice,’ that shortens the discussion a lot.”
Peter Kim
Peter Kim looks at the vaccine with grad student Ashley Utz in their lab.

Peter Kim and Ashley Utz, ’19, PhD ’25, demonstrate the testing process for their vaccine. Photo: Steve Fisch

The problem is that very few university professors ever reach that point, because they don’t have Kim’s business background—not to mention the seed funding needed to give risky ideas a chance.

The IMA provides all of that, along with technical expertise and industry know-how. And in this sense, it is neither business nor academia as usual.

Thinking small

Kim’s team started with an idea rarely seen outside a lab. A typical vaccine takes one of two approaches: Either use a nonpathogenic form of the virus itself, or else an isolated part of the virus, such as its RNA. Either ingredient can trigger an immune response. But the virus-based approach requires constant refrigeration, and mRNA vaccines (think Pfizer or Moderna) must be kept frozen until used. In addition, neither method is particularly cheap.

A third possibility, a nanoparticle-based vaccine platform conceived in a lab at the National Institutes of Health, had the potential to be more affordable and less dependent on cold chain storage and transportation. The key is nanoscale particles of ferritin, an iron-bearing protein found in the cells of almost every living organism. Kim’s lab wanted to place the telltale “spikes” from the COVID-19 coronavirus onto nanoparticle carriers.

It’s who you know

It was a promising idea, but because of Kim’s insistence on extreme affordability, he couldn’t convince companies or even governments to buy in at first. That’s when the IMA stepped up, connecting Kim with philanthropic support to jump-start the project. Traditional funders might have gotten on board eventually, but never that fast, says Kim. 

He knew what to do next, and his lab developed a testable prototype in short order. This in turn made it a viable pitch for a company to produce the vaccine in quantities needed for clinical testing, in exchange for an interest in an eventual product. Structuring a deal like that requires skills that barely exist on most campuses, Kim says. “Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to start manufacturing.”

Today, Kim’s COVID-19 vaccine is in Phase I human trials in both the United States and South Africa. His lab is also developing the nanoparticle method for use against influenza and Ebola, where it offers the same benefits in terms of cost and storage.

Without Kim’s unusual combination of business and science skills, most Stanford faculty will need to work with partners who have industry know-how. In some cases, the IMA’s on-campus staff scientists will bring skills from the far end of the drug pipeline to bear at the earliest stages, where they can save the most time and add the most value. In other cases, the IMA will broker collaborations with outside companies. 

Spreading fast

All over the Stanford campus, there are thousands of potential medicines, says Kim—and thousands of potential innovators.

“The IMA is unleashing the scientific creativity of our faculty and students.” 

Like him, most are more interested in impact than profit. But even those bound for business will change the way business is done.

Our students and trainees are getting experience they would never get at other universities
It makes it easier for them to do this kind of work in academia, in companies, and in government.”
Peter Kim

That’s a vaccine-style strategy: Give people new tools, which they carry into other organizations. The impact will be far greater than that of any single medicine.

“You have to measure ROI in many different ways,” says Kim. It’s one part of the IMA model he hopes will draw philanthropists and investors alike.

Why Stanford?

If you want to invent lifesaving vaccines, you could go into commerce, and Peter Kim enjoyed many productive years as president of Merck Research Laboratories.

When that stage of his career was done, Kim says, “I wanted to go back to basic research, running a lab, mentoring young people.” The only question was where.

Kim had earned his PhD at Stanford, and he’d been a professor at another institution on the East Coast. In fact, he still had family back east. But it turned out Stanford’s location has an advantage:

“Stanford has world-class engineering and computer science, right next to world-class basic science and medicine, all within five minutes of each other. No other university has that,” says Kim. 

Equally important, people and ideas move freely between those disciplines. Kim bumps into Nobel laureates in other fields without even trying. 

“I give Stanford’s leaders tremendous credit for focusing on the intersection of science and medicine. To have it all be so interconnected is just amazing.”

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