Two COVID-19 Vaccine Scientists Win 2021 Lasker Award in Medicine

Carolyn Crist

September 24, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Katalin Kariko, PhD, a senior vice president at BioNTech, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor in vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made a breakthrough discovery by modifying messenger RNA (mRNA), which provides instructions to cells to make proteins.

Dr Katalin Kariko

They found that adding modified mRNA to cells could briefly prompt cells to make any protein they chose. This tool enabled the quick development of COVID-19 vaccines — and is already fueling the development of treatments for a range of other illnesses, including cancers, infectious diseases, and autoimmune disorders.

The Lasker Awards are among the most prestigious prizes in medicine. Winners often go on to receive the Nobel Prize and other major awards.

When Kariko and Weissman discovered the technology in 2005, they received little attention. They wrote grants to continue their work on mRNA modification, but the applications were rejected.

Dr Drew Weissman

In recent years, Moderna and BioNTech took notice and used the technology to develop mRNA vaccines for the flu and other illnesses, though they didn't move out of clinical trials for years.

Then the coronavirus pandemic began. Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech decided to use the mRNA modification to make COVID-19 vaccines.

Now Kariko and Weissman are being recognized with numerous awards, including the $3 million Breakthrough Prize and the $1 million Albany Prize. The Lasker Prize carries an honorarium of $250,000.

"Together with my colleagues we inched towards a solution, building upon discoveries of scientists who came before us, and created the optimal RNA suitable for therapy," Kariko said in accepting the award. "Never in a million years would I have imagined that it would be used to create a vaccine to combat a global pandemic."

Weissman applauded the years of work that led up to the mRNA vaccines.

"Although the investigations that we began over two decades ago have culminated in significant discoveries and a vaccine against a pandemic-causing virus, the work continues," he said in his acceptance speech. "I'm thrilled to say that my lab is pursuing new mRNA vaccines to guard against a host of infectious diseases, like influenza and HIV, and even a pan-coronavirus vaccine that could offer protection against all viruses in the coronavirus category."

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