When Drew Weissman started collaborating with Katalin Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania, they were looking at an idea that was ahead of its time. That partnership started 25 years ago and got little attention until the work became the foundation for the first COVID-19 vaccines.
For his work on mRNA technologies, Weissman is now a 2022 Canada Gairdner International Award laureate.
“I’ve been working for the past over 25 years studying and developing mRNA,” says Weissman, Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.
“And the work that I did with Kati Karikó, we identified that RNA was inflammatory. We figured out how to make it not inflammatory. Then my lab developed it for vaccine use, which is currently what both COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech use.”
That was a major discovery, because inflammatory activation meant that mRNA was quickly destroyed after injection in the body, before it could enter cells to deliver a vaccine’s instructions. By engineering a non-inflammatory form of mRNA, Weissman played a major role in making it stable enough to use in medicine.
“The true heroes are the people in my lab who do the work every day, and who have developed the vaccines and other therapeutics over the years,” adds Weissman.
“The people that have helped me the most in research are people like Ann Marshak-Rothstein, who I did my PhD with, and Tony Fauci, who I did my fellowship research with, who really taught me how to be a good researcher.”
Weissman also credits his wife and kids for their support, which has made his award-winning research possible.
“The Gairdner Award is an incredible honour to receive, to be among that list of incredibly well-known, productive, and ingenious researchers,” says Weissman.
“The money will go for basic science research, so it’ll support new research. It’ll support young researchers who want to try out new ideas or new approaches.”
With the successful application of mRNA for COVID-19 vaccines, one area of ongoing research is the development and testing of vaccines for viruses like influenza, HIV, Zika virus, and more.
“It’s fantastic to see something that you’ve worked your life on be used, and to help the world,” says Weissman.
“That’s just a feeling that I never thought would happen, and I still haven’t figured out how to fully process it. But it’s an incredible feeling, and it’s just so happy that we’ve been able to help with this pandemic.”