How Philanthropic Gifts Can Keep Fueling Hope for the Future

Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, and Katalin Kariko, PhDThe key discoveries that led to the powerful COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/ BioNTech were forged in labs at Penn Medicine over decades of research – and the rigorous science of Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery, may have changed medicine forever.

“Simple,” Weissman replies. “Funding. Without it, research teams can’t stay together to focus on important questions or problems.”

There were so many COVID-19 vaccine candidates developed in what seems to be so little time because of investments in basic science research at Penn, the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and other federally funded academic laboratories. It was the extraordinary influx of resources into SARS-CoV-2 research since the pandemic began that played a critical role in moving breakthrough ideas into breakthrough vaccines and therapies.

“The critical takeaway here,” Weissman explains, “is that consistent and robust funding toward basic research – and this is where we know philanthropy can close the gap – could mean millions of lives saved down the line.”

Sustaining Global Impact

“Support of basic research is the most effective way to ensure continued medical progress. Drs. Weissman and Karikó’s groundbreaking science has sparked an ambitious research agenda, and our philanthropic partners again will play a vital role in seeing that promise unfold.”
J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD
Executive Vice President, University of Pennsylvania for the Health System
Dean, Perelman School of Medicine

Disproportionate access to vaccines not only puts people in those countries at risk, but it also creates conditions for variants to emerge that jeopardize global health. To that end, Weissman has been collaborating with partners in the World Health Organization and Thailand to develop new mRNA vaccines and the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facilities to produce them so that lower resourced nations benefit from greater access. GMP facilities cost millions of dollars to build and the transfer of technology and expertise to produce mRNA vaccines is complex.

“We need to ensure the most powerful tool we have against COVID-19 remains available and accessible to the people who need it the most,” says Weissman. “More than that, this mRNA vaccine development and manufacturing infrastructure must remain active to level the playing field against myriad diseases, now and in the future. Philanthropic support and public and private partnerships are essential.”

A global mRNA vaccine research fellowship is another means toward maintaining both worldwide collaboration on infectious disease and that “level playing field.” Weissman’s lab trains scientists from around the world – including Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, and Japan – thanks to funding from their home institutions. These costs remain a major barrier for researchers from lower-resourced nations, and Weissman and his team are committed to expanding access to these scientists and enabling their success.

Research Funds Advancing a Pan-Coronavirus Vaccine – and Beyond

An illustration of a translucent globe shape surrounded by protein spikes similar to a coronavirusOver the past two decades, the world has experienced outbreaks of three coronaviruses: SARS-CoV in 2002, MERS-CoV in 2012, and SARS-CoV-2 in 2019. Weissman and other Penn Medicine scientists are laying the groundwork for universal coronavirus vaccines, as well as the development of vaccines for other infectious diseases and chronic conditions. Gifts can provide discretionary support to pursue both foundational and novel research projects, as well as expedite preclinical studies.

“The future of how to treat and prevent disease has changed course. Philanthropic support helps us upgrade with new advanced facilities and infrastructure, welcome new researchers, and take the helm in driving innovation and progress against myriad diseases.”
Jon Epstein, MD
William Wikoff Smith Professor of Cardiovascular Research
Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer

Translating mRNA technology to in vivo gene therapy for sickle cell anemia would dramatically improve access to treatment. The Weissman lab has developed new technology that allows modified mRNA to be efficiently delivered to bone marrow stem cells, instructing red blood cells to produce normal hemoglobin. Additional funding would accelerate development of a therapy that can be easily performed with a simple intravenous injection. Further, this would have applications to many other congenital gene defects in blood and stem cells.

“Penn is not only at the leading edge in mRNA therapeutics – we created the leading edge,” says Andrew Bellet, director of Development. “We are poised to empower our renowned scientists and uncover many more discoveries thanks to the support of generous and visionary donors.”

It’s just one example of how philanthropy could advance the most promising new applications of mRNA technology to fight disease. Penn Medicine researchers are already working on new therapeutics and products for protein replacement, immunotherapy, and personalized cancer vaccines. They are targeting influenza, herpes, HIV, malaria, orphan diseases and more – treatments that can help the most vulnerable populations around the world.

There are many ways you can become a philanthropic partner ushering in this next great hope in medicine – one with global impact. Contact Andrew Bellet at 215-573-0548 or

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