In the vaccine trenches with Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman

The technology behind the first two commercially available COVID-19 vaccines to hit the American market was revolutionized and refined at the Perelman lab in which Katalin Kariko has worked for decades. The messenger RNA (mRNA) offers not just a chance to stanch a global pandemic but also a promising new platform to tackle all manner of diseases.


“Science builds on science,” Kariko says. “We always built on the people who came before us, and people will use our data. Of course, everything was important that those people did. I would hug them if I could.”

Kariko’s attitude is a key part of how she and others helped unlock the promise of a method that many dismissed as a clinical dead end in the 1990s. When the sector struggled to attract funding—when Kariko’s attachment to it imperiled her job prospects at Penn—she and her Perelman colleague Drew Weissman, a professor of infectious diseases, battled to defend its merits. They persevered in part because of their openness to trying new things, to share their findings and entertain new possibilities even when their ideas were met with skepticism.

Lately her time in the lab has been reduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a shift to a more advisory role at BioNTech, the German pharmaceutical company she joined in 2013. (She remains an adjunct professor at the Perelman School of Medicine.)

The end product is a pair of safe and effective vaccines, produced by Moderna and a partnership between BioNTech and Pfizer, that have sped to market in record time. They are based on mRNA, which codes for a molecular analogue of the spike protein that lines the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and uses that analogue to teach the immune system to develop antibodies against the virus. Yet this technology isn’t just a powerful weapon against the pandemic. The underlying method represents a new frontier in biologic medicine whose vast possibilities encompass infectious diseases, cancer treatments, and even repairing autoimmune and genetic conditions.

“We knew when we started with this technology that it would be very useful if a pandemic hit, because it’s so fast and so easy to make a vaccine with it,” Weissman says. “But we weren’t hoping for a pandemic to prove that.”

This story is by Matthew De George. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.