PHILADELPHIA – It was a scientific discovery 16 years ago that paved the way for creation of lifesaving vaccines when the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe in 2020. Now, the two Penn Medicine researchers behind the findings are again being recognized for their innovative and monumental work, which has ushered in a new era of vaccine technology.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery and a senior vice president at BioNTech, have been named recipients of the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their mRNA-based vaccine technology which formed a foundation for two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines that have led the world’s battle against the virus. The world’s largest science prize, each of the five main Breakthrough Prizes confers $3 million to its winner or winners.
Weissman and Karikó teamed up over 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania in order to investigate mRNA as a potential therapeutic. In 2005, they published landmark research that revealed how mRNA could be altered in order to use it therapeutically and developed an effective strategy that allows mRNA to be delivered into the body to reach the proper target. Prior to their discovery, mRNA vaccines being developed to prevent infectious diseases did not effectively and safely spur protective immune-system responses in animal models. The 2005 research and subsequent findings led to successful animal and human trials, and both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna licensed University of Pennsylvania technology which is used in the vaccines, a combined 360 million doses of which have now been administered in the U.S. alone. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being deployed in 126 countries across the globe, and 71 countries are using the Moderna vaccine.
Weissman and Karikó have been honored with multiple national and international awards this year, including the Princess of Asturias Award and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
“The work of Drs. Weissman and Karikó is the scientific foundation on which these innovative and lifesaving vaccines rest,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “Their discovery of how to chemically modify mRNA to more effectively produce proteins in vivo laid the groundwork for the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines—and has sparked a completely new way to look at prevention of infectious diseases and novel pathways for the treatment of cancer and other serious conditions.”
Since its founding in 2013 by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki, the Breakthrough Prize has been given to standout individuals in life sciences, mathematics, and fundamental physics. Along with Weissman and Karikó, this year’s recipients are Jeffery W. Kelly of the Scripps Research Institute; and Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman of the University of Cambridge, along with Pascal Mayer of Alphanosos. Traditionally celebrated during a live, televised awards ceremony that honors the laureates, this year’s program is postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic.
Penn researcher Virginia Man-Yee Lee, PhD, the John H. Ware 3rd Endowed Professor in Alzheimer's Research, received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2019 for cellular discoveries in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Multiple System Atrophy.
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, Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko have received and may continue to receive significant financial benefits in the future based on the sale of these products. BioNTech provides funding for Dr. Weissman’s research into the development of additional infectious disease vaccines.
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.