Published: 07-12-2023 17:00 | Updated: 07-12-2023 17:02

Innovation occurs at the intersection of different worlds

Kenneth Chien.
Kenneth Chien. Photo: Linnea Bengtsson.

In December, Kenneth Chien is leaving his professorship in cardiovascular research after ten years at Karolinska Institutet. He will now devote himself wholeheartedly to developing new mRNA therapies in the biotechnology industry.

Kenneth Chien is the third generation in his family, following his father and grandfather, to graduate from Harvard University. He entered research with two strong interests: cardiology and molecular science.

"At the time, cardiology was a very clinically oriented field with treatments more akin to plumbing. So my dream was to try to bring the advances in molecular science to the field of cardiology. The result was a fusion of new biotechnological treatments in the field of molecular cardiology," says Kenneth Chien.

When he was recruited to Karolinska Institutet in 2012, he came from a professorship at the Department of Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University in Cambridge. In addition, he was active at Harvard's Stem Cell Institute, where he led the university's stem cell programme with a focus on cardiovascular disease.

Develop new treatments at KI

He brought more than 20 years of research along to KI, with the aim of mapping and understanding the molecular mechanisms of the heart. The goal of the move from the US to KI was to take the research from mouse to human biology and develop new targeted treatments.

"At KI, there was world-class scientific expertise but also access to well-structured registries of rare diseases, and the possibility of long-term follow-up in a stable and high-quality clinical environment. And integrative collaborations with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, especially Astra Zeneca, who were early advocates of mRNA technology," says Kenneth Chien. 

For most of his professional life, Kenneth Chien has served as a senior advisor to various biotechnology companies alongside his academic career.

"Now it is time to start a new chapter where I will focus on new heart medicines by promoting and founding more biotech companies that can unlock the full potential we see in mRNA," says Kenneth Chien.

Founded Moderna

Kenneth Chien co-founded Moderna in 2010, one of the three pharmaceutical companies that developed the COVID-19 vaccine in record time.

"To be perfectly clear, I personally had very little to do with the development of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine," says Kenneth Chien, but adds that the research on mRNA therapy in the cardiovascular field, conducted between 2012 and 2019, in collaboration with Astra Zeneca and KI, helped create a solid foundation for mRNA technology.

At KI, Chien's professorship gave him the opportunity to build up a lab at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Solna, as well as his own activities at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge. 

At its peak, Kenneth Chien's research group employed more than 15 researchers. Chien also became part of the Swedish Research Council's initiative to strengthen Swedish-Chinese research and innovation cooperation on behalf of the government.

Exploring the possibilities of mRNA

In 2014, the research group was among the first to join the new translational research center ICMC, the Integrated Cardio Metabolic Centre, which ran until 2020.

"ICMC made it possible to continue exploring the possibilities of using mRNA as a treatment method in the cardiovascular field,” says Kenneth Chien. 

Among other things, it developed the basis for an mRNA therapy that can regenerate the heart's blood vessels and increase blood flow in the tissue. Today, the research has reached clinical trials in heart patients undergoing open heart surgery in collaboration with Astra Zeneca and Moderna.

At the same time, Chien’s research group has been dedicated to searching for the stem cell that forms so-called ventricular muscle cells. The heart consists of many types of cells, but only the ventricular muscle cells cause a muscle contraction. However, these cells are damaged in cases such as heart attacks.

Revolutionary therapies

Chien’s research group has shown how to create heart muscle tissue in heart models in mice, pigs, and monkeys, even when they are placed on damaged parts of the heart after a heart attack. In addition, it has the ability to seek out an injury, and, once there, replace any scar tissue.

The results have been taken forward in a collaboration between Astra Zeneca and Procella, a company co-founded by Kenneth Chien. By 2024, Chien expects that clinical trials in heart patients could be underway.

"Within ten years, I believe we will see mRNA being used to create new protein-based therapies for a variety of diseases, not just cardiovascular disease. Using the body's own cells to make drugs will be absolutely revolutionary."

Besides being able to spend more time realizing new therapies, he is very much looking forward to spending more time with his family.

"For the past decade I have been traveling back and forth between Cambridge and Stockholm, but this would not have been possible without the unwavering support of my wife Megan. She now leads a number of initiatives to promote the health and well-being of the world's children, including UNICEF. So at home, an eight-year-old and a four-year-old are waiting for me."

"It is a real pleasure to take care of them, make sure they get to school and cook for them. So I will pursue my career at the intersection of two different fields, with my new title in life being a 'biotech-nanny'."

Text: Magnus Trogen Pahlén

Kenneth Chien, professor emeritus of cardiovascular research

Born: 1951

Family: Married to Megan Donovan-Chien with whom he has two children, aged eight and four; two children from a previous marriage. 

Lives: Boston, USA

Current: Leaving a ten-year professorship at KI to pursue entrepreneurship in the biotech industry.