As a student at the University of Szeged in Hungary, Norbert Pardi, PhD, an assistant professor of Microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, found a mentor in none other than messenger RNA (mRNA) innovator, Katalin Karikó, PhD, adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at Penn and a senior vice president at BioNTech. The two were from the same small town in Hungary, graduated from the same university, and met up every summer for more than a decade to discuss scientific problems.
In 2011, Karikó, along with Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research at Penn, offered Pardi a postdoctoral position at Penn. “Those were fun times, and we had several important discoveries in the coming years,” Pardi said.
Pardi had the opportunity to work directly with Karikó and Weissman between 2011 and 2013 as they worked on the mRNA technology that would later pave the way for the development of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Most importantly, this postdoctoral period set the stage for Pardi’s own research, some of which involves mRNA technology.
In this Q&A, Pardi describes his current research and what inspires him to keep going.
What research are you currently undertaking?
During my successful postdoctoral period in Drew Weissman's lab, we developed the modified mRNA-lipid nanoparticle (LNP) platform — a versatile tool that can be used for many different purposes ranging from vaccine development to genome editing. Currently, I have a five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research program focused on the development of universal influenza vaccines using this mRNA-LNP technology. In a second NIH-funded project, I collaborate very closely with Michela Locci, PhD, assistant professor of Microbiology at Penn, and we try to uncover the mechanisms of action of mRNA-LNP vaccines.
I am also involved in malaria vaccine development as part of a Thai-Japanese-United States consortium. Besides these projects, I have multiple ongoing collaborations with labs in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States on very different topics centered around the mRNA-LNP platform.
What inspired you to do the research you’re doing?
It is super motivating and inspiring knowing that what I have been working on for 10 years is something that can be useful for people — just think of the impact of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines! Since the mRNA-LNP platform is really versatile, there are lots of opportunities. I think the coming years will be spent determining the range of applicability of this novel, revolutionary tool.
I feel very lucky because I had good mentors during all stages of my career. This is particularly true of my postdoctoral period here at Penn. When I joined Drew and Kati, they both had small labs, so we worked shoulder-to-shoulder. We were all very enthusiastic and believed that we could use mRNA for vaccination and therapy one day. It is also very motivating that most researchers at Penn like to collaborate. I think this is extremely important for successful research in the field of life sciences.
Can you share details about your study of the development of an mRNA flu vaccine?
Our universal influenza vaccine program focuses on the development of an mRNA-based flu vaccine that provides protection from multiple influenza A and influenza B virus strains. The flexibility of the mRNA-LNP vaccine platform allows for the incorporation of multiple flu antigen-encoding mRNAs — from several flu strains — into a single vaccine. Such a vaccine will induce a broadly protective response. We have already made parts of the vaccine and published some promising early findings.