When Penn Medicine’s Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó won a Nobel Prize in October for their pioneering research on messenger RNA, they were laser-focused on the future, proclaiming that highly effective COVID-19 vaccines were just the beginning for the technology. On the docket are vaccines and treatments for peanut allergies; malaria; genital herpes; sickle cell, heart, and Lyme disease; and even future flu pandemics.
This ignited era of RNA therapeutics is being boosted by the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation, co-directed by Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, and physician and scientist James Hoxie. Newly located at One uCity Square, the Institute serves as a home base for RNA researchers working in biology, chemistry, immunology, modeling, vaccines, oncology, genetic diseases, and bioengineering to collaborate across disciplines.
During an opening celebration for the Institute on Tuesday, attended by Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Penn President Liz Magill, and about 100 others from the University and Penn Medicine communities, Weissman said the Institute was already collaborating with more than 250 labs across the country and world, with intentions to collaborate with a total of 500 by next year.
“Science occurs because of collaboration,” Weissman insisted.
Shapiro, visiting the space for the second time since September, said, “It is my hope, and it is my expectation, that the research that is done here will lead to even more groundbreaking discoveries, more treatments, more cures, more opportunity for happiness and good health, not just here in the great city of Philadelphia, or in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but across the globe.” He added that he wants Penn to become the leader of life sciences innovation across the country.
“You are key to our growth strategy in the Commonwealth,” Shapiro said. “And I have no doubt, given your strong history and everything you’ve done, you will once again rise to this challenge and you will help us lead a new era of innovation here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Mentioning researchers from schools across Penn, CHOP and the Wistar Institute, and Swarthmore College and Lehigh University as examples, the Institute for RNA Innovation, said Magill, brings together a “critical mass of brilliance and ingenuity.”
Magill recognized the breakthroughs that can happen because of a chance encounter, including Weissman and Karikó’s oft-told story of first meeting, decades ago, at a copy machine.
“One of our great strategic advantages is our compact and contiguous campus, where 12 amazing schools and a world-class health system coexist just a short walk from one another,” said Magill. “Strengthening this advantage for Penn, advantage for research, for education, for service to the wider world, is one of my highest priorities for our future at Penn. We will make this University even more tightly interwoven and, in doing so, even more creative and inventive. The Institute for RNA Innovation exemplifies this so well.”
Hoxie is himself no stranger to collaboration, notably with Weissman, on HIV vaccine research. Among his accomplishments throughout his four decades at Penn, Hoxie has served as the founding director of the Penn Center for AIDS Research, which brings together HIV/AIDS researchers across Penn, CHOP, and Wistar. It has become a national leader in basic, clinical, behavioral, and social sciences related to the ongoing challenges surrounding HIV/AIDS.
During his remarks, Hoxie referenced a quote from Penn founder Benjamin Franklin: “The noblest question in the world is, ‘What good may I do in it?’”
“Thanks to the discoveries of Drew and Kati, with many of their colleagues along the way, those of us in the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation feel that we are truly empowered to do good in the world,” Hoxie said.
Also speaking during the gathering was Penn Medicine’s Jonathan A. Epstein, Kevin B. Mahoney, and J. Larry Jameson, who thanked Brian Roberts—also in attendance—for him and his wife’s forward-thinking generosity in establishing Weissman’s endowed professorship and the Katalin Karikó Fellowship Fund in Vaccine Development.
“Science has a very important role to make the world a better place, to improve peoples’ lives, to improve society broadly,” said Jameson, who serves as dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System. “It’s hard to think of an example more powerful than that of the RNA platform, which led to the COVID-19 vaccine that saved a lot of lives. And it’s one of the most important things we can do as scientists.”
Before attendees enjoyed a tour of the Institute’s new lab space, located on the building’s fourth floor, Jameson surprised Weissman and Karikó, who was also at the event, with a framed photoshopped picture representing their chance meeting at the copy machine. Meant as a commemorative send-off before the pair head to Stockholm in December for a flurry of Nobel Award ceremonies and banquets, Jameson said: “We wanted to capture your smiling faces and an image that would inspire you not only as you go toward Stockholm in a couple of weeks but hopefully for the rest of your lives.”
One uCity Square is a purposely-built lab and office building, being developed by Wexford Science & Technology. Also the new home to Penn Engineering’s Center for Precision Engineering for Health, it lists Century Therapeutics, Integral Molecular, Exponent, and Charles River Laboratories as industry tenants.