2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences awarded to mRNA pioneers Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó

Weissman and Karikó are honored for engineering modified RNA technology which enabled rapid development of effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó standing side by side.
Twenty-five years ago, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó struck up their first conversations at Penn by a copy machine, where both were printing journal articles. That chance encounter laid the foundation for a revolution in mRNA technology, innovations that are now being leveraged to confront a host of biomedical challenges. (Image: Peggy Peterson)

It was a scientific discovery 16 years ago that paved the way for the creation of lifesaving vaccines when the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe in 2020. Now, the two Penn Medicine researchers behind the findings are again being recognized for their innovative and monumental work, which has ushered in a new era of vaccine technology.

Drew Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery and a senior vice president at BioNTech, have been named recipients of the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their mRNA-based vaccine technology which formed a foundation for two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines that have led the world’s battle against the virus. The world’s largest science prize, each of the five main Breakthrough Prizes confers $3 million to its winner or winners.

Weissman and Karikó teamed up more than 20 years ago at Penn to investigate mRNA as a potential therapeutic. In 2005, they published landmark research that revealed how mRNA could be altered in order to use it therapeutically and developed an effective strategy that allows mRNA to be delivered into the body to reach the proper target. Prior to their discovery, mRNA vaccines being developed to prevent infectious diseases did not effectively and safely spur protective immune-system responses in animal models. The 2005 research and subsequent findings led to successful animal and human trials, and both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna licensed Penn technology which is used in the vaccines, a combined 360 million doses of which have now been administered in the U.S. alone. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being deployed in 126 countries across the globe, and 71 countries are using the Moderna vaccine.

Weissman and Karikó have been honored with multiple national and international awards this year, including the Princess of Asturias Award and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.

“The work of Drs. Weissman and Karikó is the scientific foundation on which these innovative and lifesaving vaccines rest,” says J. Larry Jameson, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “Their discovery of how to chemically modify mRNA to more effectively produce proteins in vivo laid the groundwork for the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines—and has sparked a completely new way to look at prevention of infectious diseases and novel pathways for the treatment of cancer and other serious conditions.”

Since its founding in 2013 by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki, the Breakthrough Prize has been given to standout individuals in life sciences, mathematics, and fundamental physics. Along with Weissman and Karikó, this year’s recipients are Jeffery W. Kelly of the Scripps Research Institute; and Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman of the University of Cambridge, along with Pascal Mayer of Alphanosos. Traditionally celebrated during a live, televised awards ceremony that honors the laureates, this year’s program is postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic.

Penn researcher Virginia Man-Yee Lee, the John H. Ware 3rd Endowed Professor in Alzheimer’s Research, received the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for cellular discoveries in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Multiple System Atrophy. Physicists Charles Kane and Eugene Mele of the School of Arts & Sciences won the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for new ideas about topology and symmetry in physics, leading to the prediction of a new class of materials that conduct electricity only on their surface.

Editor’s Note: The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines both use licensed University of Pennsylvania technology. As a result of these licensing relationships, Penn, Weissman, and Karikó have received and may continue to receive significant financial benefits in the future based on the sale of these products. BioNTech provides funding for Weissman’s research into the development of additional infectious disease vaccines.