Messenger RNA innovators Drew Weissman, MD, PhD (BUSM’87), the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn and a senior vice president at BioNTech, have received the 2021 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, 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.
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. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being deployed in 126 countries, and 71 countries are using the Moderna vaccine.
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 Dr. Anthony Fauci’s lab.