Kathrin U. Jansen, PhD, is the Senior Vice President and Head of Vaccine Research and Development (VRD) at Pfizer Inc and Pfizer’s Worldwide Research, Development and Medical leadership team. She has 28 years of pharmaceutical experience in Vaccine R&D. She has recently been celebrated for her efforts in developing the COVID-19 vaccine.
Jansen was born in Erfurt, a city located in East Germany. As a child, she was frequently unwell and often suffered from throat infections. Her father, a chemical engineer by profession, would always have a treatment that worked like a charm — an antibiotic and a codeine suppository. “You’re a small person and you have this violent cough and you feel sick as a dog,” she remembered. That incident inspired her to pursue a career in drug development.
She went on to study biology at the University of Marburg with the hope of working in the pharmaceutical industry one day. After finishing her PhD thesis at Philipps-University in Marburg, she was confident that she had discovered a new chemical pathway in bacteria. However, a final experiment revealed that it wasn’t true, teaching her an important lesson in failure.
Dejected, she informed her thesis adviser and mentor about the grim news and was met with a smile. Her advisor told her that it was a lesson: science is not predictable, and often ‘eureka’ moments fall apart in the face of new data and testing. It was an essential lesson for Jansen, who would eventually work in drug development, where most drug trials fail on the first few attempts.
Jansen’s first job was at Cornell and Massachusetts General Hospital before she moved to the Glaxo Institute for Molecular Biology in Geneva, focusing on drug development. When she finally decided to move back to the U.S. in 1992, Alan Shaw, a friend from Glaxo, listed a job opening in the company’s vaccine division. The standard inoculations against hepatitis B, measles and mumps, were created.
Shaw, at the time, was looking for a way to transition his scientists toward developing other types of drugs apart from the standard inoculations the company already produced. He wanted Jansen to work on a project in diabetes. He hired her, and she recalled that she quickly got the project killed. “We couldn’t reproduce a single thing that was described,” she said.
However, Jansen soon fell in love with making vaccines. Her first target was the human papillomavirus, which at the time was shown to be the cause of cervical cancer back in the 1980s.
Although confident that she could develop a vaccine to treat the virus, she was faced with unrelenting scepticism from others. Along the way, Jansen rose through the ranks from research scientist to senior director to ultimately becoming the executive director and department head of Microbial Vaccine Research at Merck.
After a tense debate at one meeting regarding the trial, Jansen said a senior medical researcher cornered her. “All of a sudden, he started yelling at me at the top of his lungs.” She let him blow off steam and then sternly informed her superiors that she would not let anyone treat her in this manner. By this time, Jansen and her team had developed a vaccine named Gardasil; however, everyone was apprehensive about its efficacy.
In 2002, a trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a vaccine against one strain of HPV that prevented infection with that strain with an efficacy rate of 100%, providing a proof of concept. Gardasil was approved in 2006. Before that happened, Jansen left Merck, confident the product would succeed.
“If you have a scientific intuition and you’re careful with your experimentation, at the end, you have to follow your gut and not let naysayers derail you,” Jansen said.
She then took a job as the Chief Scientific Officer of a company called VaxGen but did not have much success. She was soon approached by Emilio Emini, an old boss from Merck, who had taken the top vaccine job at Wyeth, a company with a long history of making childhood vaccinations. He needed Jansen’s help with a vaccine called Prevnar. Prevnar 7 was a brilliant vaccine; however, it only gave kids immunity to seven strains of pneumococcus. Other previously rare strains, including a virulent one called 19a, were starting to fill the gap. So Wyeth developed a newer vaccine, Prevnar 13, that would protect kids against 13 strains and needed Jansen’s help with it.
Pfizer acquired Wyeth for $68 billion in 2009 after Prevnar 13 was identified to be a huge success. After the acquisition, her role at Pfizer was to come up with the next lucrative iteration of Prevnar and press forward on new vaccines.
Her next big challenge appeared with the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in February 2020— potentially airborne, contagious, but more deadly than influenza. Dr Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, approached her, “Would Pfizer want to work on a vaccine with BioNTech? “Of course,” Jansen said. She soon convinced her superior and headed the project.
Pfizer and BioNTech decided to test four potential mRNA vaccines that used different chemically prepared mRNA methods so the body doesn’t destroy them. Like all the COVID-19 vaccines in clinical development, all four were based around the spike protein, which the virus used to hijack its way into human cells.
In the early trials, Jansen noted that the Pfizer-BioNTech shot also seemed to rev up two types of white blood cells: those that detect the virus of the immune system and those that kill cells once they are infected. If the virus is ‘wimpy,’ she said, the antibodies could be enough. But those extra lines of defence are nice to have.
She says that the scepticism reminded her of the doubt about Gardasil all those years ago.“There were many people who thought this couldn’t work, and of course, they were wrong,” she recalled.
Celebrating the success of the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine that was developed in record time to tackle the ongoing pandemic, Jansen said, “We can call it a miracle. But a miracle always has a sense of it ‘just happened’. It didn’t just happen. Right? It was something that was deliberate. It was with passion, done with passion. It was urgent. It was always in your sight that devastating disease.” With her determination and passion, she is focused on developing more vaccines and leading the world to an age of curable diseases with inoculations.