Drew Weissman ’81, GSAS MA ’81, P’15, H’23 and Senior Vice President at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals Katalin Karikó H’23 jointly won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work on messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine development during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their collective research on how mRNA interacts with the human immune system contributed to an unprecedented rate of vaccine development that altered the course of the COVID pandemic.
Vaccines protect individuals from illnesses by stimulating an immune response to a modified version of a pathogen. This allows the body to form an immunological “memory” of the pathogen so that in the event an individual contracts a virus, the body has a head start coordinating processes to fight off the illness. Before mRNA vaccines, vaccines were developed using weakened versions of the real virus, or by viral components such as proteins or genetic material. Although these are effective techniques, the development of such vaccines is resource and time-intensive and therefore limits rapid vaccine production in response to pathologies.
Within our cells, genetic information encoded in DNA is transcribed into mRNA, which is a template for protein synthesis. During the 1980s, new technologies enabled the rapid production of mRNA. Immunologists sought to deliver mRNA encoding viral proteins to humans to alert the immune system of a particular pathogen. However, the mRNA delivery posed challenges like inciting an inflammatory response in patients and required sophisticated lipid carriers to transport unstable mRNA.
Weissman and Karikó observed that one class of cells in our immune systems, dendritic cells, recognize exogenously synthesized mRNA as foreign, leading to an inflammatory response. This led them to hypothesize that mRNA in cells must have certain properties that synthesized mRNA does not have. The nucleotides, or units making up mRNA, in cells are frequently modified, suggesting that synthesized mRNA may require chemical modifications to prevent the unwanted inflammatory response. Ultimately, Weissman and Karikó determined the appropriate modifications to make to synthesized mRNA to not only remove the inflammatory response, but also to increase protein production from the delivered mRNA, allowing for more effective vaccines.
As described in the Nobel Prize press release: “The [mRNA] vaccines have saved millions of lives and prevented severe disease in many more, allowing societies to open and return to normal conditions. Through their fundamental discoveries of the importance of base modifications in mRNA, this year’s Nobel laureates critically contributed to this transformative development during one of the biggest health crises of our time.”
Both Weissman and Karikó were awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Brandeis University at the 2023 spring commencement ceremony this year. In February 2021, the two scientists won the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research.
A Brandeis Stories article, written by Interim Senior Vice President of Communications Julie Jette, detailed how during his time as a student at Brandeis Weissman engaged in social activism regarding environmental issues and voting rights as well as research at Professor Gerry Fasman’s biochemistry lab. During his speech for the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award, Weissman shared, “Coming to Brandeis expanded my learning. I learned about politics, I learned about psychology, I learned about sociology, I learned about music, theater and opera. All of those things have continued to expand over my years after graduating. So, I think it really broadened me as a person. But my main focus was in the lab doing research, and that’s where I was happiest.”
Weissman is the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research and Karikó is an Adjunct Professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Their research formed the basis for the biotechnology companies Pfizer, as well as its Germany-based partner BioNTech and Moderna. Their work on the development of mRNA vaccines poses applications for other viral infections such as HIV, and offers new avenues for personalized medicine.