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PHILADELPHIA – As mRNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are deployed to protect hundreds of millions of people across the world and point the way to end the deadly global COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Pennsylvania scientists whose prescient discovery science effort laid the foundation for swift vaccine development have been awarded the 2021 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.

Messenger RNA innovators Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at Penn and a senior vice president at BioNTech, are honored with what is widely regarded as America’s top biomedical research prize for the discovery of a therapeutic technology based on the modification of mRNA that makes it remarkably safe and effective.

The global impact and recognition of Weissman and Karikó’s work has its roots in their years of research together at the University of Pennsylvania investigating mRNA as a potential therapeutic. Their groundbreaking study published in 2005 found that their concept—which brought fresh hope to a field beset by skepticism and false starts—could be a reality: that mRNA could be altered and then delivered effectively into the body to initiate a protective immune response. Their method to turn cells into factories that can temporarily produce proteins that serve as therapeutic compounds or stimulate the body’s immune system to attack a specific pathogen also minimizes harmful inflammatory responses.

weissman and kariko
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This platform set the stage for the rapid development and deployment of mRNA vaccines to combat COVID-19 when the virus exploded across the world in early 2020. Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have licensed University of Pennsylvania technology that is used in their COVID-19 vaccines, a combined 370 million doses of which have been administered in the U.S. alone. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being deployed in 126 countries, and 71 countries are using the Moderna vaccine.

“Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko’s visionary research and persistence in unlocking the power of mRNA as a therapeutic platform have established both Penn and Philadelphia as the birthplace of mRNA vaccines, and provided us with the blueprint for a future in which we can fight infectious diseases, and incurable genetic diseases, from herpes and malaria to sickle-cell anemia and cancer,” 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. “From the challenges and losses sown by the COVID-19 pandemic, their breakthrough discoveries have emerged and allow us to see a brighter future for so many fields of medicine.”

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For 75 years, the Lasker Awards have recognized the contributions of leaders who make major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease. Weissman and Karikó’s awards, which carry an honorarium of $250,000 between them, were announced today in a virtual ceremony by the Lasker Foundation. Past Lasker Award honorees include Jonas E. Salk for the invention of the polio vaccine and Anthony Fauci for designing government programs to tackle the issues of HIV and biodefense. Weissman completed his fellowship in immunology in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, serving in Fauci’s lab.

The have been seven previous Penn Medicine faculty members who have received Lasker awards, for achievements including development of cognitive behavioral therapy, vaccines for pneumonia and meningitis, and the first discovery of a genetic cause of cancer, the so-called Philadelphia chromosome.

“As a physician-scientist, you hope your work will someday have a positive impact on real people, and it was beyond exciting to see that happen,” Weissman said. “But now, I’m most excited to be teaming up with colleagues to explore all that mRNA vaccines can do. We’re working on malaria with people across the U.S. and in Africa and on leptospirosis with people in Southeast Asia. We’re working on vaccines for peanut allergies. All of this is through collaboration. We find the best people in the world and ask them, ‘Do you want to collaborate on making this vaccine?‘”

weissman and kariko lab
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Karikó, too, is collaborating with fellow scientists on new discoveries, likening the research to the thrill of watching an intricate detective story unfold. “So many enigmatic things about RNA I find very, very exciting,” Karikó said. “And I am so glad that it eventually helped humanity.” On her collaborations with Weissman, she added, “Sometimes, we asked a question and made an experiment. And of course, instead of the answer, we got 100 more questions. It was very enjoyable. I would like to emphasize that to be a scientist is a joy.”

Weissman and Karikó have been recognized this year with multiple national and international commendations, including the Princess of Asturias Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, and the Breakthrough Prize.

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. Karikó 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, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—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 powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community.