Third Nobel laureate with NIDCR support in last three years
- University of Pennsylvania researcher Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D. was recognized for contributions in developing mRNA vaccines.
- Dr. Weissman used NIDCR funding to study oral delivery of mRNA vaccine.
NIDCR sends its congratulations to former institute grantee Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D., for being a co-recipient of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Weissman and his longtime collaborator Katalin Karikó, Ph.D., jointly received the award “for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.” A nucleoside is a structural subunit of the nucleic acids in DNA and its intermediate RNA.
Dr. Weissman is the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research and director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovations at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He completed his clinical training at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and postdoctoral research at NIH studying HIV in the lab of Anthony Fauci, M.D.
In 2009, Dr. Weissman received an NIDCR grant to develop an mRNA vaccine for HIV that could be given orally and wouldn’t cause an unwanted immune response. This work contributed to publication of a 2010 article by Drs. Weissman, Karikó, and colleagues that the Swedish Assembly specifically cited in awarding the Nobel Prize.
The 2010 paper and an earlier cited publication established that modifications to mRNA nucleosides reduced the body’s undesirable immune responses and increased protein production. These breakthroughs provided the basis for generating small, non-infectious snippets of mRNA that encode the instructions to make a distinctive viral protein that's unique to a virus. When the snippets of mRNA are injected into a shoulder muscle, cells there follow the encoded instructions and temporarily make copies of this signature viral protein. As the immune system detects these copies, it spurs the production of antibodies and helps the body remember how to fend off the virus should the real thing be encountered.
Their discoveries prompted several companies to explore mRNA technology as early as 2010 and develop methods in the laboratory to develop vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases. “When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the mRNA technology of Karikó and Weissman was waiting and provided the scientific foundation for two major COVID vaccines,” said NIDCR Director Rena D'Souza, D.D.S., Ph.D. “Critically, their mRNA technology also condensed to about 11 months a vaccine development process that used to take many years, often decades.
“Their work shows not only the inherent power of basic research,” Dr. D’Souza added. “It also demonstrates the power of these basic discoveries to save lives, in this case, the lives of many millions of people worldwide. That’s why their Nobels, in the wake of our horrible pandemic, are honors so well deserved.”
Their Nobels also recall the close collaboration of Drs. Karikó and Weissman over the decades. Their intellectual connection stands out as an example for scientists pursuing a compelling idea. And to think that partnership started around an old-fashioned copy machine.
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