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Newswise – PHILADELPHIA – It was a scientific discovery 16 years ago that paved the way for life-saving vaccines as the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide in 2020. Now, the two Penn Medicine researchers who are behind the results are reunited for their innovative and monumental work that ushered in a new era in vaccine technology.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, an Associate Professor of Neurosurgery and Senior Vice President at BioNTech, were recipients of the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their mRNA-based vaccine technology, which formed the basis for two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines that are world leaders appointed fight against the virus. The world’s largest science award, each of the top five breakthrough awards, awards its winners $ 3 million.
Weissman and Karikó teamed up at the University of Pennsylvania over 20 years ago to study mRNA as a potential therapeutic. In 2005, they published groundbreaking research showing how mRNA could be altered for therapeutic use, and developed an effective strategy for transporting mRNA into the body to reach its right destination. Prior to their discovery, mRNA vaccines designed to prevent infectious diseases did not stimulate effective and safe immune responses in animal models. The 2005 research and subsequent results resulted in successful animal and human testing, as well as the University of Pennsylvania licensed technology from Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna used in the vaccines, now 360 million in the United States alone Doses were administered. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is used in 126 countries around the world, and 71 countries use the Moderna vaccine.
Weissman and Karikó were honored with several national and international prizes this year, including the Princess of Asturias Award and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.
“The work of Dr. Weissman and Karikó is the science behind these innovative, life-saving vaccines, ”said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, University of Pennsylvania’s executive vice president for health systems and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “Their discovery of how mRNA can be chemically modified to produce proteins more effectively in vivo paved the way for the rapid development and use of mRNA vaccines – and created a completely new approach to infectious disease prevention and new ways of doing this Treatment of cancer and other serious diseases. “
Founded in 2013 by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner and Anne Wojcicki, the Breakthrough Prize has been awarded to outstanding personalities in the life sciences, mathematics and basic physics. In addition to Weissman and Karikó, this year’s winners are Jeffery W. Kelly from the Scripps Research Institute; and Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman from the University of Cambridge, along with Pascal Mayer from Alphanosos. Traditionally, this year’s program will be postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic.
Penn researcher Virginia Man-Yee Lee, PhD, John H. Ware 3rd Endowed Professor of Alzheimer’s Research, received the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for cellular discoveries in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple system atrophy.
Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines both use technology licensed from the University of Pennsylvania. Because of these licensing relationships, Penn, Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko will receive and continue to receive significant financial benefits from the sale of these products. BioNTech finances Dr. Weissman’s research to develop additional vaccines against infectious diseases.