Rosenstiel Award winners contribute to fundamentals of vaccine production

February 12, 2021

Biochemist Katalin Karikó and Professor Drew Weissman ’81, MA’81 were presented the 50th annual Rosenstiel Award for their pioneering work on the modification of nucleic acids to develop RNA therapeutics and vaccines. Karikó currently serves as the senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals and Weissman is a Professor of Medicine as well as the co-director of the Penn Center for AIDS Research (Immunology Core) and director of vaccine research (Infectious Diseases Division) at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, according to the award’s website.

Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz, cofounder of Moderna, Derrick Rossi, and director of NIAID and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci gave congratulatory remarks during the ceremony. 

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there has been an immediate focus by the scientific community to develop vaccines to combat the virus. The foundational biological concept underlying the COVID-19 vaccine development can be traced back decades ago, Rossi explained during the awards ceremony. “DNA makes RNA, makes protein, makes life.” In our cells, messenger RNA (mRNA) acts as a mobile intermediary between the passive molecule DNA that resides isolated in our cell’s nuclei and the proteins in the cytoplasm. 

Through their research, Karikó and Weissman sought to harness a cell’s protein making capabilities by engineering their own RNA instruction manual. However, a problem arose: cell cultures perished in response to the addition of synthetic mRNA. To combat this, Karikó and Weissman modified the structure of the synthetic mRNA molecule and developed a protective lipid bubble encasing the RNA, allowing cells to efficiently produce the desired proteins. 

Our immune system fights against viral infections by recognizing and remembering viral protein markers displayed on the surfaces of infected cells and subsequently destroying them. Coronaviruses all contain pointed surface proteins called spike proteins, enabling the virus to enter and infect human cells. Biotechnology companies Moderna and Pfizer aimed to engineer mRNAs that code for the spike protein. 

Once the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine is administered, our cells are able to express the spike protein, enabling immune cells to fight against future coronavirus infections without actually undergoing the dangers of being infected. 

Karikó and Weissman’s past work on refining the introduction of chemically engineered RNAs in cells made subsequent therapeutic applications like the COVID-19 vaccine development feasible. The rapid vaccine turnover was an “extraordinary feat unprecedented in the annals of science,” Fauci said during the presentation. 

Rossi believes that “most vaccines in the future will be mRNA vaccines,” and Haber attests that “mRNA is becoming a new class of medicine.” By raising the middle-child molecule mRNA into the scientific limelight, Karikó and Weissman opened doors to a new realm of biotechnological applications. 

Karikó and Weissman are continuing to collaborate on their work, Haber announced during the ceremony. The relevance of Karikó and Weissman’s past work in today’s scientific issues is testament to the ever-evolving nature of science. “Forecasting the ultimate value of basic research can be difficult, however fundamental advances in basic research can underpin extraordinary progress in real world medicine,” Fauci added.

The Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research was established in 1971 “as an expression of the conviction that educational institutions have an important role to play in encouragement and development of basic science as it applies to medicine,” according to the award page’s website.

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