Drew Weissman is one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on messenger RNA that paved the way for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D., is currently a Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, Director of Vaccine Research in the Infectious Diseases Division and Director of the Institute for RNA Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). He shares this year’s Nobel Prize with Dr. Katalin Karikó, a biochemist who worked with Weissman at UPenn.
We’re talking about millions of people’s lives that have been saved thanks to their discoveries.”
“Few medicine prizes in modern times have probably been as well-deserved as this one,” says Dr. Marcus Buggert, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Department of Medicine at the Center for Infectious Medicine (CIM), Karolinska Institutet.
Buggert worked in a lab adjacent to Weissman at UPenn when he was a post-doctoral student. “We’re talking about millions of people’s lives that have been saved thanks to their discoveries,” he emphasizes.
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Drew Weissman’s laboratory focuses on the study of RNA, innate immune system biology, and the application of these findings to vaccine research and gene therapy. The findings that he and Katalin Karikó made changed researchers’ understanding of how messenger RNA (mRNA) interacts with the human immune system, according to the Nobel Prize committee, “Contributing to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”
After years of research, Karikó and Weissman realized the potential for mRNA to transport new instructions to cells. However, lab-made mRNA caused inflammation when delivered into human immune cells. Spurred by curiosity, they continued experimenting until they discovered that by altering one of the four types of nucleosides that make up the mRNA, the inflammatory nature of the mRNA disappeared. This research paved the way for treatments for numerous infectious, acute and genetic diseases and has enabled vaccines to be developed much faster.
Day after day, Weissman, Karikó and their teams worked tirelessly to unlock the power of mRNA as a therapeutic platform.”
“Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman are brilliant researchers who represent the epitome of scientific inspiration and determination. Day after day, Weissman, Karikó and their teams worked tirelessly to unlock the power of mRNA as a therapeutic platform, not knowing the way in which their work could serve to meet a big challenge the world would one day face,” stated Liz Magill, President of UPenn, in a prepared statement.
“We felt camaraderie”
Weissman and Karikó collaborated for almost 20 years, after a chance meeting at a photocopying machine.
“I enjoyed working with Drew. He was very critical, just like me. We both were very meticulous and careful designing our experiments,” says Karikó. “When we discussed the results, we tried to come up with many different explanations for the outcome, and based on those, we tried to design the best experiment that would answer some of the questions raised.”
I learned modern immunology from Drew, everything from dendritic cells to the molecular mechanisms of T cell generation and the loading of their MHC.”
They played off each other’s strengths, she says. “I learned modern immunology from Drew, everything from dendritic cells to the molecular mechanisms of T cell generation and the loading of their MHC,” she adds.
Weissman was quiet and shy compared to her excitable nature, jokes Karikó. “According to his wife, he has a word limit that he can say every day and by the end of the day, when he goes home, he used them all up and remained silent,” she says with warmth and love in her voice.
As we worked on a manuscript or submission of a grant application, we were corresponding by emails through the night. We felt camaraderie as we both put all our efforts into the work and encouraged each other.”
The two scientists discussed daily new developments in science, not only in their field, but other findings they found exciting. “We both read a lot of scientific literature. We always worked very hard, late hours, and at home. As we worked on a manuscript or submission of a grant application, we were corresponding by emails through the night. We felt camaraderie as we both put all our efforts into the work and encouraged each other.”
The extent of the applications of Drew Weissman’s research are still being discovered.
“He has worked tirelessly on this topic, despite many obstacles, because he saw the potential in the platform,” says Marcus Buggert. “This opens up so many different avenues, from future cancer vaccines to potentially using mRNA as a delivery platform in gene therapy.”
Featured photo: Peggy Peterson