PHILADELPHIA – For their landmark research that set a foundation for the mRNA SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior vice president at BioNTech, have been selected to receive the 2021 Albany Prize. The award, one of the largest in medicine and science in the United States, has been given for the last 20 years by Albany Medical Center to those who have altered and positively impacted the course of medical research.
The honor comes after decades of work by Weissman and Karikó, whose scientific findings helped make mRNA vaccines—including the Pfizer/BioNTech SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that recently received full FDA approval—a reality. In 2005, they published research that found how mRNA could be altered in order to use it as a therapeutic. Weissman and Kariko changed the way the mRNA was made by including specific naturally occurring mRNA modifications that make the mRNA safer, more stable, and effective for prophylactic and therapeutic purposes.
“Collectively, The Albany Prize recipients have made major contributions to science over decades as researchers, mentors, and educators,” said Vincent P. Verdile, MD, the Lynne and Mark Groban, MD ’67, Distinguished Dean of Albany Medical College and Chair of The Albany Prize National Selection Committee. “Their years of work, scientific expertise, and sheer determination played a critical role in accelerating the development of two mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. And their dedication exemplifies The Albany Prize legacy to honor scientists whose work has demonstrated significant outcomes for the betterment of humankind.”
Along with Weissman and Karikó, Barney S. Graham, MD, PhD, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and the chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, is also a 2021 Albany Prize recipient for RNA research.
The first Albany Prize was bestowed in 2001. Past recipients include Penn’s Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, who was honored in 2018 for his work in pioneering the development of CAR T therapy for cancer. This year’s winners will be celebrated at a ceremony in Albany, New York, on September 22, 2021.
Weissman and Kariko have been honored with multiple national and international awards this year, including the Princess of Asturias Award.
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.
The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.