Penn Scientists Have Been Awarded the Lasker Prize in 2021 for Their Development of Therapeutic mRNA Technology

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While hundreds of millions of people around the world will be protected by mRNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, the University of Pennsylvania scientists whose foresight in discovery science laid the groundwork for rapid vaccine development have been awarded the 2021 LaskerDeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their work have been recognized for their achievements.

A therapeutic technology based on the modification of mRNA that is remarkably safe and effective was discovered by messenger RNA innovators Dr. Drew Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, and Dr. Katalin Karik贸, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at Penn and the senior vice president of BioNTech.

Weissman and Karik贸's work has had a worldwide effect and attention because of their years of collaborative study at the University of Pennsylvania looking into mRNA as a therapeutic option. In a ground-breaking study published in 2005, the researchers discovered that their hypothesis鈥攚hich offered new hope in a field beset by skepticism and false starts鈥攃ould become a reality: that mRNA could be altered and then effectively delivered into the body to initiate a protective immune response.. Additionally, their approach reduces detrimental inflammatory reactions while briefly converting cells into factories that may manufacture therapeutic chemicals or activate the immune system to target an individual pathogen.

This system paved the way for the fast production and widespread use of COVID-19 mRNA vaccinations when the virus broke out in early 2020. 370 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been given in the United States alone by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, both licensed from the University of Pennsylvania for use in their products. Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are used in 126 countries, whereas Moderna vaccines are used in 71 countries.

As a result of Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko's pioneering work, Penn and Philadelphia are now recognized worldwide as the birthplace of mRNA vaccines, and they have given us the blueprint for fighting infectious diseases as well as genetic diseases like sickle-cell anemia and cancer in the future," said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania. Their groundbreaking discoveries have arisen from the difficulties and losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they enable us to envision a better future for many areas of medicine. While hundreds of millions of people around the world will be protected by mRNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, the University of Pennsylvania scientists whose foresight in discovery science laid the groundwork for rapid vaccine development have been awarded the 2021 LaskerDeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their work have been recognized for their achievements.

Scientists who have developed therapeutic technologies based on modifying mRNA, such as Penn's Dr. Drew Weissman, PhD, and BioNTech's Dr. Katalin Karik贸, PhD, have been recognized with what is widely considered to be America's top biomedical research prize for their discovery of a safe and effective therapeutic technology.

Weissman and Karik贸's work has had a worldwide effect and attention because of their years of collaborative study at the University of Pennsylvania looking into mRNA as a therapeutic option. In a ground-breaking study published in 2005, the researchers discovered that their hypothesis鈥攚hich offered new hope in a field beset by skepticism and false starts鈥攃ould be a reality: that mRNA could be altered and then effectively delivered into the body to initiate a protective immune response.. Additionally, their approach reduces detrimental inflammatory reactions while briefly converting cells into factories that may manufacture therapeutic chemicals or activate the immune system to target an individual pathogen.

This system paved the way for the fast production and widespread use of COVID-19 mRNA vaccinations when the virus broke out in early 2020. 370 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been given in the United States alone by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, both licensed from the University of Pennsylvania for use in their products. Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are used in 126 countries, whereas Moderna vaccines are used in 71 countries.

As a result of Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko's pioneering work, Penn and Philadelphia are now recognized worldwide as the birthplace of mRNA vaccines, and they have given us the blueprint for fighting infectious diseases as well as genetic diseases like sickle-cell anemia and cancer in the future," said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania. Their groundbreaking discoveries have arisen from the difficulties and losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they enable us to envision a better future for many areas of medicine.

75 years have passed since the Lasker Awards began honoring those who have made significant contributions to the advancements of human health via breakthroughs in illness detection, treatment, cure, or prevention. The Lasker Foundation presented Weissman and Karik贸 with honoraria totaling $250,000 in a virtual event today. For example, Jonas E. Salk and Anthony Fauci both received Lasker Awards in the past for their work on the polio vaccine and biodefense policy. As part of his fellowship, Weissman worked at Fauci's immunology lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

For their work in developing cognitive behavioral therapy, developing pneumonia and meningitis vaccinations, and finding a genetic cause of cancer (the Philadelphia chromosome), seven prior Penn Medicine faculty members have won Lasker prizes.

'As a physician-scientist, you always hope that your work will benefit actual people,' said Weissman of the experience. "However, I'm most looking forward to working with colleagues to discover all the possibilities of mRNA vaccines. We're collaborating with individuals all across the United States and Africa on malaria, and in Southeast Asia on leptospirosis. Peanut allergy vaccines are currently being developed. All of this is possible because of the efforts of many people working together. Finding the world's top talent, we ask, "Do you want to cooperate on the development of this vaccine?""

Karik贸 is also working with other scientists to make new findings, and compares the experience to that of watching a complex detective tale develop with a sense of wonder. "There are so many enigmas around RNA," Karik贸 said. "And I'm so happy it benefited mankind in the end." She went on to say this about her work with Weissman, saying, "Every now and then, we posed a question and then conducted an experiment to see whether our hypothesis was correct. Instead of a response, we received a slew of new inquiries. It was a lot of fun. To be clear, being a scientist is a rewarding profession."

In addition to the Princess of Asturias Award and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, Weissman and Karik贸 were honored with the Breakthrough Prize this year.

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