One of Brandeis’ most notable alumni, Drew Weissman ’81, GSAS MA’81, P’15, H’23, has been gaining coverage recently for his research in the field of messenger RNA, which has led to his award of a coveted Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine in company with Katalin Karikó, H’23, who is currently senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals. In addition to this, Brandeis awarded both with an Honorary Doctorate of Science in 2023, the 50th Annual Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award in Basic Medical Research in February 2021 and the Lasker award in clinical medical research in February 2021. This research is truly an accomplishment for scientists everywhere as it single-handedly expedited the process of immunization for COVID-19, and accelerated scientific progress world-wide. Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz had the opportunity to comment on this groundbreaking discovery, saying “Drew’s pioneering research in messenger RNA is a true breakthrough for science. Through his visionary work, he has not only altered the course of a pandemic, but has advanced human knowledge and understanding in ways that will shape vaccine research for generations to come. His remarkable achievement is one of the great scientific accomplishments of our time,” as noted in Julie Jette’s Brandeis Stories article.
In Weissman’s address to Brandeis University’s 2023 graduates titled ‘Embrace the Remarkable Potential of Science,’ Weissman was given the opportunity to outline his journey from a simple “freshman in Shapiro Hall” to where he is today. Weissman was born and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, and went on to study biochemistry and enzymology at Brandeis. From there, he was able to study alongside professor Gerry Fasman in his biochemistry lab. Yet, science was not the only passion of Weissman’s, who states he was an “active student’s campus member and part-time activist.” During his time at Brandeis, Weissman developed a strong sense for social justice and equity, which has direct applications to his work in science. “It is … at Brandeis where I learned the importance of social justice and developed the values that guide me to this day.” In fact, his priority for justice spearheaded his research in mRNA and allowed him to be where he is today. “When I, along with my scientific partner, Katalin Karikó, discovered a way to harness mRNA for therapeutic purposes, we never imagined its proof of concept would be a vaccine to one day address a century global pandemic. We did, however, immediately grasp the enormous potential of this technology over 25 years ago to develop new treatments and cures for many different diseases,” says Weissman.
Along with promoting a strong set of values, Brandeis also was the catalyst for many of Weissman’s strong relationships. “It is here where I met people who remain my friends and colleagues to this day, including Laura, Stewart, Liz, Jeff, Mark and Fran,” says Weissman. He also met his current wife at a calculus class in Brandeis. “It is here where I met my wife, now a gifted child psychologist, while tutoring her in calculus, although I’ll admit the only thing she seems to remember from those sessions is that I explained the concept of infinity by comparing it to her boundless desire for shoes. And based on the number of Nordstrom’s packages received at our house on a weekly basis, this is a concept she’s still extensively exploring to this day,” he fondly recounts. Even Weissman’s daughter is a Brandeis alumni, whose interests are just as diverse as his. “I first watched my oldest daughter graduate like a true Brandeisian, with an unnecessary number of majors and minors. ‘Cause how could you ever be successful in healthcare policy without also having a minor in sculpture?” For Weissman, the same was true. “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. So, all of those things have continued to expand over my years after graduating. So, I think it really broadened me as a person.” All in all, the university provided a nurturing environment for Weissman to explore his passions to the fullest extent. “It was a great campus, it was a tight campus. People got along great. People supported each other … I think what really sticks out in my mind is the collegiality, the collaborative nature and the friendships that I developed at Brandeis.”
The development of a messenger RNA vaccine was not an easy journey. Weissman and his colleague “hit every possible roadblock, including lack of funding and dismissal by scientific publications.” However, the implications for their research inspired them to persevere, in order to uphold the very same values Weissman was able to sustain during his time at Brandeis. Upon receiving the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award in 2021, Weissman spoke to President Liebowitz, who touched upon Weissman’s history. “Over the years, many researchers gave up on mRNA, but Drew and Katalin persisted. By engineering a modified version of the messenger RNA and then developing a system to deliver it to its target, the two researchers laid the groundwork for the vaccine brought to fruition by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna,” says Liebowitz. “Katy and I started working on RNA at a time when nobody cared about RNA and nobody thought it would be a good therapeutic. People would look at me and say, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re wasting your time,’” Weissman recounts. “We kept working at it, because we knew it had enormous potential. The potential to us was so great, we weren’t willing to give up.” Weissman does admit that he wouldn’t tell his PhD students to give up 23 years of their life on their personal projects, but instead says “I think you have to look at the project and decide, is this worth putting many years of your life and your career into? And that’s how Katy and I felt.”
Brandeis also played a big part in Weissman’s perseverance. When he felt most overwhelmed by work, Brandeis taught him to keep going. “I was a premed, I got an MD PhD afterwards. It’s an incredibly stressful time, being in the premed program, but I had the support of not only the students, my friends, but the teachers as well. They wanted us to succeed, and I think that’s what shaped my future. Where right now I have a lot of students in my lab and I work with them to help them succeed, and that’s what Brandeis taught me.”
Eventually, their hard work paid off, and other scientists began to see the potential in mRNA research. “We finally convinced companies that this was a potential great advance, and that’s when things turned around.” Weissman remembers the exact moment when he felt all his work paid off. “It was 2005 when Katy and I made the discovery that modifying RNA got rid of its inflammation, and when we made that, that told us that all of our work was correct, and there was an enormous future for the use of modified RNA.” Of course, it wasn’t until seven to eight years after this point that the rest of the world caught on and began to truly see the efficacy of their studies.
Weissman speaks about science as a “great equalizer” that “allow[s] people across the world to get the most up-to-date information from public health officials to keep them and their families safe.” Science inspires Weissman to use his knowledge for good, and to give back to the community. “I spend much of my time pursuing programs that help low- and middle-income countries build facilities and research infrastructure for local development and production of mRNA vaccines and treatments,” he states. Through this initiative, Weissman has helped in the establishment of 18 mRNA research centers in multiple countries, including Thailand, South Africa, Ukraine, Brazil and India.
Weissman ends his speech by saying “science is not merely a collection of facts and figures, it is a dynamic, ever-evolving process of discovery. It is a reflection of our collective curiosity, our innate desire to understand the world around us in our relentless pursuit of knowledge.” He urges us to chase our dreams whether or not science is your passion. “Let us carry with us the spirit of perseverance, the hunger for knowledge, the desire to create a more just and sustainable society. Each one of you has the potential to make a profound impact, shape the future and leave an indelible mark on the world.”