Long-awaited accolades for mRNA scientists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman’s key mRNA discoveries more than 15 years earlier made COVID vaccines possible. Now the global public has opportunities to honor them.

Dotted amongst a night of stars like Lilly Collins, Mila Kunis, Maria Sharapova, and Kristen Bell, sat Drew Weissman, and Katalin Karikó. The two mRNA pioneer scientists may have begun the night feeling not much in common with their entertainment A-list tablemates but ended the night having partnered on one more project: assembling IKEA furniture.

The 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was awarded to mRNA pioneers Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine News)

Egged on by the evening’s host James Corden and scrapping lab coats for formal wear, the pair held tools and instructions as they put together the Trotten drawer unit. Corden told Karikó and Weissman that, sure, building the novel mRNA vaccine platform that protected the world from COVID-19 was hard, but a real challenge would be to build some Ikea furniture. “I wouldn’t rely on Vin Diesel to help you too much,” said Corden, referencing the famous actor seated to Karikó‘s left. Weissman smiled and laughed as Karikó, with a look of determination, immediately took stock of the pieces and parts. They got to work just as they had done so many times in the lab.

Award ceremonies like the Breakthrough Prize Award Ceremony have been nonstop now that the world is shifting from managing COVID-19 as a pandemic emergency to an endemic disease. During the height of the pandemic, as mRNA vaccines were being administered, the accolades flooded in for these two scientists whose key discoveries more than 15 years earlier made those vaccines possible. But the kudos arrived in the form of phone calls, certificates, and medals shipped in the mail, and magazine spreads. 

On the walls of Weissman’s office are letters from adoring fans, the kind of letters the stars of the latest Marvel movie might receive. Some of the letters are even thank-you notes from kids who heard about how Weissman and Karikó’s work led to the vaccine and who now want to become scientists just like them. 

“It’s nice that these award ceremonies bring people together,” says Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research in the Perelman School of Medicine. “There are academics, dignitaries, celebrities, and members of the public who are all uniting to honor science. Through these ceremonies, we often also are invited to visit schools, elementary through high school, to talk about our work and what they can do if they go into science. That’s personally very fulfilling.”

“These awards are opportunities to talk about science and expose people to science, and I feel like it’s my responsibility now to engage with people,” says Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery. “I also want young people to see how exciting research can be. I often talk about the challenges and difficulties, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.