Drew Weissman ’81, MA ’81, P ’15—a Penn Medicine physician—has been named among the Time’s 2021 “Heroes of the Year.” Weissman was nominated for his contribution towards RNA vaccines specifically for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Weissman and his colleague Katalin Kariko—a Penn Medicine researcher—collaborated to invent the mRNA technique used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, according to Weissman’s Penn Medical page. Both vaccines are being distributed globally to help prevent COVID-19 infection and spread, and are approved for use by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), according to the CDC’s website.
The research and development of this technique was done over the course of more than 15 years, according to the page. “Every experiment doesn’t work. Every hypothesis isn’t good. It was a continuous flow of negative feedback. But we saw the potential of the RNA and neither of us would give up,” said Weissman in the Time video.
Weissman and Kariko first found a way to modify mRNA over a decade ago, after that discovery they expanded on the technique to create a delivery system that could package mRNA into lipid nanoparticles, according to the page. By creating this packaging system, it allows the RNA to reach the intended part of the body that will allow the immune system to fight the specific disease—in this case, COVID-19.
According to the Time article, Weissman and Kariko came to the breakthrough together which found that, “changing a specific mRNA building block helped the molecule evade the immune system.” From there, Weissman found that mRNA could be encased in a fat bubble, by doing this, it would protect the genetic code of the material that is trying to be injected into the body. This then triggers the immune system to target antigens that match what has been injected by the vaccine, according to the Time article. This in essence gives the human body a set of instructions on how to fight different diseases after having the vaccine injected into them.
“After that their research sped up rapidly. For disease after disease—more than 20 in all, including norovirus, influenza, HIV, hepatitis and Zika—the mRNA-based vaccines the duo developed during the 2000s were nearly 100 percent effective in protecting lab animals from getting infected,” according to the Time article.
The work of Weissman and Kariko was able to be applied to the COVID-19 vaccine. “These laboratory breakthroughs made mRNA safe, effective and practical for use as a vaccine against COVID-19,” according to Weissman’s faculty page.
Time magazine, in its “Hero’s of The Year” article dedicated to the scientists behind the vaccine— including Weissman and Kariko, refers to the scientists as “The Miracle Workers.” The Time article highlighted the work of two scientists, in addition to Weissman and Kariko, for their work with developing the COVID-19 vaccines, Kizzmekia Corbett and Barney Graham.
According to the Time article, the scientists’ by, “exposing the inner workings of how viruses survive and thrive is what made the COVID-19 vaccines possible.” In the Time Heroes of the Year 2021: Vaccine Scientists video, the four doctors explain that this vaccine was not a quick fix, it was that the technology had been developed at the “right time” for them to be able to implement it in the fight against COVID-19. Many people criticized the vaccine process when it was first released, claiming it was rushed, according to the video. Corbett explained in the article that she wished information about the vaccine came out different, “because it came without the understanding of all the work we had done before. While we did design a vaccine basically overnight and move quickly into clinical trials, there was so much confidence in the way we did that because we’d been preparing for years.”
The process of using mRNA technology took Weissman and Kariko 16 years to figure out how to use it safely in the human body, according to the Time video. Weissman and Kariko developed the mRNA technology for the vaccine but it was Corbett and Grahman who developed the sequencing of the COVID-19 virus which could be used in the vaccine.
According to the Time video, the four scientists are now working to apply their findings to other diseases including the flu and cancer.
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine has since received FDA approval in August 2021, an update from its previous status which allowed it to be used for emergency use. The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine has been approved by the FDA, but only for emergency use, according to Weissman’s faculty page.
Weissman went to Brandeis for his undergraduate degree, he studied biochemistry and enzymology, according to a BrandeisNOW article. He fulfilled his pre-med requirements at Brandeis and continued his education to receive his PhD and MD from Boston university, according to the article. After graduate school, Weisman went on to work on HIV research at the National Institute of Health (NIH). In this fellowship position he worked under Dr. Anothony Fauci who is currently the Chief medical advisor to the U.S. President Joe Biden.