As mRNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are deployed to protect hundreds of millions of people across the world and point the way to end the deadly global COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Pennsylvania scientists whose prescient discovery effort laid the foundation for swift vaccine development have been awarded the 2021 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.
Messenger RNA innovators Drew Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn and a senior vice president at BioNTech, are honored with what is widely regarded as America’s top biomedical research prize for the discovery of a therapeutic technology based on the modification of mRNA that makes it remarkably safe and effective.
The global impact and recognition of Weissman and Karikó’s work has its roots in their years of research together at the University of Pennsylvania investigating mRNA as a potential therapeutic. Their groundbreaking study published in 2005 found that their concept—which brought fresh hope to a field beset by skepticism and false starts—could be a reality: that mRNA could be altered and then delivered effectively into the body to initiate a protective immune response.
Their method to turn cells into factories that can temporarily produce proteins that serve as therapeutic compounds or stimulate the body’s immune system to attack a specific pathogen also minimizes harmful inflammatory responses.
This platform set the stage for the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines to combat COVID-19 when the virus exploded across the world in early 2020. Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have licensed University of Pennsylvania technology that is used in their COVID-19 vaccines, a combined 370 million doses of which have been administered in the U.S. alone. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is being deployed in 126 countries; 71 countries are using the Moderna vaccine.
“Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko’s visionary research and persistence in unlocking the power of mRNA as a therapeutic platform have established both Penn and Philadelphia as the birthplace of mRNA vaccines, and provided us with the blueprint for a future in which we can fight infectious diseases and incurable genetic diseases, from herpes and malaria to sickle-cell anemia and cancer,” says J. Larry Jameson, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “From the challenges and losses sown by the COVID-19 pandemic, their breakthrough discoveries have emerged and allow us to see a brighter future for so many fields of medicine.”
For 75 years, the Lasker Awards have recognized the contributions of leaders who make major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease. Weissman and Karikó’s awards, which carry an honorarium of $250,000 between them, were announced today in a virtual ceremony by the Lasker Foundation.
Past Lasker Award honorees include Jonas E. Salk for the invention of the polio vaccine and Anthony Fauci for designing government programs to tackle the issues of HIV and biodefense. Weissman completed his fellowship in immunology in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, serving in Fauci’s lab.
Seven previous Penn Medicine faculty members have received Lasker awards, for achievements including development of cognitive behavioral therapy, vaccines for pneumonia and meningitis, and the first discovery of a genetic cause of cancer, the so-called Philadelphia chromosome. Since its inception, 95 Lasker laureates have also received the Nobel Prize, including six in the past two years.
“As a physician-scientist, you hope your work will someday have a positive impact on real people, and it was beyond exciting to see that happen,” Weissman says. “But now, I’m most excited to be teaming up with colleagues to explore all that mRNA vaccines can do. We’re working on malaria with people across the U.S. and in Africa and on leptospirosis with people in Southeast Asia. We’re working on vaccines for peanut allergies. All of this is through collaboration. We find the best people in the world and ask them, ‘Do you want to collaborate on making this vaccine?’”
Karikó, too, is collaborating with fellow scientists on new discoveries, likening the research to the thrill of watching an intricate detective story unfold. “So many enigmatic things about RNA I find very, very exciting,” Karikó says. “And I am so glad that it eventually helped humanity.” On her collaborations with Weissman, she adds, “Sometimes, we asked a question and made an experiment. And of course, instead of the answer, we got 100 more questions. It was very enjoyable. I would like to emphasize that to be a scientist is a joy.”
Weissman and Karikó have been recognized this year with multiple national and international commendations, including the Princess of Asturias Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, and the Breakthrough Prize.
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.
View the Penn Medicine release at Penn Medicine News.