Drew Weissman and Katalin KarikÃ³, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania whose flagship research helped develop messenger RNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines, received the 2022 Breakthrough Award in Life Sciences.
The Breakthrough Prize is the world’s largest in the field of science. Each of the five main prizes awards $ 3 million to the winner (s). In addition to the field of life sciences, researchers in mathematics and fundamental physics are also recognized each year.
Weissman is an infectious disease expert and professor of vaccine research at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. KarikÃ³ is Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery and Senior Vice President of BioNTech.
The two scientists helped design modified mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 shots created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Synthetic mRNA technology asks cells to make copies of the coronavirus spike protein, generating an immune response.
Both vaccines have been rolled out across the world to combat the ongoing public health crisis.
KarikÃ³’s path to scientific success was far from easy. She fled communist Hungary for the United States with her husband and daughter in the 1980s after being fired from her post as a researcher. But after arriving at Penn, KarikÃ³ struggled to secure sufficient funding for her mRNA research and, at one point, was even demoted.
But the setback did not prevent KarikÃ³ from continuing his research.
” I do not know if [KarikÃ³] would be in the same position she is right now to have mRNA as a platform if it hadn’t been demoted, âsaid KarikÃ³’s daughter, Olympic gold medalist Susan Francia in a statement. recent ESPN podcast recounting family triumphs.
Weissman and KarikÃ³ began to study mRNA technology in the 1990s as a possible therapy to prevent infectious disease.
At first, studies showed that synthetic mRNA caused too much inflammation and was destroyed by the body’s immune system before it could reach its targets. It was not reliably and effectively producing strong immune responses.
The body identified one of the four molecular building blocks of synthetic mRNA, known as nucleosides, as an intruder. To solve this problem, scientists modified the problematic nucleoside in a way that allowed synthetic mRNA to pass through the body’s defense system.
In 2005, Weissman and KarikÃ³ published this research, demonstrating that mRNA technology could be modified to serve as therapy for infectious diseases and effectively reach intended targets.
The researchers hope that the mRNA technology can be used for future vaccines and treatments against pathogens such as malaria, HIV, cancer and influenza, as well as a wide range of coronaviruses. Earlier this week, BioNTech published data showing that an mRNA cocktail suppressed colon cancer and melanoma tumors in mice, a promising development in the fight against cancer.
“The work of Drs Weissman and KarikÃ³ is the scientific basis on which these innovative and life-saving vaccines are built,” said Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine J. Larry Jameson. “Their discovery of how to chemically modify mRNA to more efficiently produce proteins in vivo laid the groundwork for the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines – and sparked a whole new way of looking at infectious disease prevention. and new avenues for the treatment of cancer and other serious diseases.
The two scientists also recently received the Princess of Asturias Prize and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.