By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
If you ask Kenneth Chien about the origins of the mRNA vaccines that are blunting the pandemic, he talks about his ancestors.
One of the co-founders of Moderna Therapeutics, Chien is using stem cell and mRNA technology for heart muscle regeneration. But he was reluctant to talk about his own work. Instead, he asked Northwest Asian Weekly to interview his father, who has written a 300-page book about the Chien family out of stories he told his sons during their childhood.
“Their stories are much more interesting than mine,” said Chien, a research director at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “Particularly for your readership.”
The book and interviews with Chien, his father, and his brother provide a look at a long family history of scholarship, of using western technology to solve the problems of the day. But the family’s prominence, which the two sons grew up hearing about, also set a very high bar for Chien, which propelled him into a field he might not otherwise have chosen.
As a young physician-scientist, he initially was drawn to neurology.
“The brain was the frontier,” he said.
But, instead, he discovered that cardiology was an area in which little molecular science was being done. Most of the work on the heart involved physiological interventions, such as catheterization, simply moving valves around, or adding tubes.
“I thought maybe I could be that guy,” he said.
In the end, he developed a way to identify and grow different types of heart cells. While the technology of mRNA had been around for decades, it had never been used to make a drug for use in a human being. The core technology, called “messenger” RNA, involves injecting new instructions into a cell, telling it to manufacture new proteins which can be used to build new cells or weapons against invaders. But Chien used it to repair damaged heart tissue.
Among other uses, such as reversing blood flow problems in diabetics, he used mouse stem cells to grow master heart cells, which could produce cardiac cells that actually beat. From there, he produced a single layer of cells, which he described as resembling a “heart patch.” From there, he developed human heart parts and more recently synthetic human heart tissue.
When the pandemic hit, Moderna was ready to adapt mRNA technology to face the coronavirus.
Derek Rossi, another professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, where Chien used to work, had initially approached him about forming Moderna a decade earlier. Rossi had been the first to use mRNA to reprogram an adult cell as a stem cell, which can morph into other cells.
Now, under the leadership of CEO Stephane Bancel, they underwent a massive shift, from developing drugs using mRNA, to focusing on putting out a vaccine.
“It was all in, a huge gamble, like trying to shift an aircraft carrier,” said Chien.
A family trait
Lying in a hospital bed, facing the prospect of surgery at 98 years old, Chien’s father speaks in a voice that is still resonant, deep, and strong, almost as if he’s shouting into the wind.
Born in China, he escaped the Japanese occupation to come to Harvard on a scholarship, then went to MIT where his studies were interrupted by a term in the U.S. Navy before he completed his degree and eventually became one of the senior scientists at DuPont.
As a father, he developed a system of demerits for his two sons, and he would deliver his rebukes in loud explosive yelling at times they never expected.
“They never knew what was coming,” he said.
Luther Chien, Kenneth’s father, said he also led a life of unswerving morality that served as a model for his sons.
“I never lied, or stole or went after other women,” he said.
His younger son’s accomplishments are also a testimony to his father’s parenting style, said Kenneth.
David Chien received a doctorate in Energy Management and Policy from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to lead development of the federal government’s policy on hybrid automobiles as well as the first greenhouse gases estimate for the U.S. Now he is deputy executive director of policy at the Federal Aviation Administration.
In his book, “When East Weds West or Yin Merges With Yang,” Luther also recounts bonding with his kids over activities, such as antique hunting. During one such outing, he purchased a large file cabinet, strapped it to the roof of his van, and drove off down the freeway. When it flew off and landed in the middle of the road, infuriating other drivers, his sons told him to pull over to assess the situation.
“They thought it was hilarious,” he wrote.
In the interview, Kenneth spoke fondly of his father’s inventiveness.
“My father actually built a house that was formerly on the city dump, believe it or not. It was perched on this area right next to a lake, and so he filled it in and renovated the whole thing. And so we had a lot of space to run around in,” he said.
It was in those woods behind the house that Chien found himself.
“And so, this other fellow and I, just neighborhood kids riding our bikes, got interested in chemistry, and we made gunpowder, in the backyard,” he said. “Fortunately, we didn’t blow anything up.”
His father, who was a church leader, also sent him to a Quaker school where a teacher, noticing his aptitude for science, one summer sent him home with a bag full of science fiction books. At first surprised to receive such literature from a teacher, he soon devoured them over the break.
But it was the stories from his past that created both a legacy and a model for him to follow, although growing up they appeared as avatars he could never surpass.
A story of culmination
It started with Kenneth’s great grandfather, who was 3 years old in 1841 when a civil war forced his family to flee. He spent 11 years as a refugee in extreme hardship, according to research done by Luther.
When Chien Tseng-chi (Qian Zengqi), the great grandfather, returned home at 14, he was too old to prepare for the civil service exams, which were the only route out of poverty. But he managed to do so anyway. He eventually went to Beijing where he lived as a household servant for years, eating scraps of food, hauling wood and water all day, and sleeping on top of his books at night so they would not be stolen.
He passed the imperial exams and became a chief advisor to the Self Strengthening project that China was undertaking to adapt western technology to defend itself against foreign invaders.
“He was a very smart man,” said Kenneth.
His son, Kenneth’s grandfather, was among the first of his generation to go to Harvard, on a scholarship. At Harvard, he met and married a Welsh immigrant, and he furthered his studies by going to Harvard Business School.
Upon returning to China with his foreign wife, he eventually became the deputy finance minister under Chiang Kai-shek in the new Republican government. When the Republic fell apart in 1911, he then served as chief opium suppressor, or the “drug czar,” to the dictator Yuan Shih-kai.
Kenneth remembers his grandfather as an old man living in his father’s basement, exiled from China after the next government took over.
“He would go out and do his Chinese calligraphy and even doing ordinary things, he would be dressed in his blue silk padded overcoat just like you envision and wearing cloth shoes, and he was very traditional. But every November, he would get dressed up in a western coat and tie and get on the train from Philly to Boston. I was a little kid, and I was always wondering where he was going, and of course it turned out he always went to every Harvard-Yale football game,” he said.
Luther, who took care of both his parents after they left China, was born in Beijing while his father worked for the government. He became the second generation to garner a scholarship to Harvard and also had a harrowing escape. During the Japanese occupation, his father and mother remained behind and arranged passage for him on one of the last ships out before the Pacific War. On his voyage across the ocean, he endured threats from Japanese submarines and a months-long stopover in Manila, where he survived with little or no money. He arrived in Cambridge so late that his scholarship had been given to another student. He had to partially work his way through school.
Kenneth, who was born in New Jersey, was the third generation in his family to go to Harvard. At first, he was going to be a medical doctor. But one summer, by accident, he got involved in research that led to a doctorate. He then went back and completed his MD.
His decades of research have left him with a smidgen of optimism during a very bleak time. Even beyond the pandemic, Chien thinks biotechnology will transform the world.
“Before Covid, if you asked the average person which technology impacts their life the most, they would probably say IT—you know iPhones, the Internet, streaming everything. There’s a whole ecosystem around IT. But they probably wouldn’t have mentioned biotechnology,” he said. “And I think after Covid, if there is any silver lining, and I’m not sure there is, I think the average person’s appreciation for biotechnology is much higher than it was pre-Covid. And hopefully that is appreciation for the value of science.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This health series is made possible by funding from the Washington Department of Health, which has no editorial input or oversight of this content.