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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Two COVID vaccine pioneers win 2021 Lasker Awards in medicine

The strikingly effective coronavirus vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use the modification Kariko and Weissman discovered.

By: New York Times |
September 25, 2021 5:04:42 pm
awardKatalin Karikó (right) and Drew Weissman, helped develop the mRNA technology used to produce the first two approved COVID vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna. (Twitter/@LaskerFDN)

Written by Gina Kolata

Among this year’s recipients of the Lasker awards, announced Friday, were two scientists whose work was crucial in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The prizes are among the most prestigious prizes in medicine, and scores of Lasker winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.

Katalin Kariko, a senior vice president at BioNTech, and Dr. Drew Weissman, a professor in vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shared this year’s Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.

In retrospect, their 2005 breakthrough was apparent when Kariko and Weissman proudly published a surprising finding they had made about messenger RNA, also known as mRNA, which provides instructions to cells to make proteins. The scientists noticed that when they added mRNA to cells, the cells instantly destroyed it. But they could prevent that destruction by slightly modifying the mRNA. When they added the altered mRNA to cells, it could briefly prompt cells to make any protein they chose.

But at the time, most scientists were uninterested in the technology, which was to become a keystone of mRNA vaccines, because they thought there were better ways to immunise.

Their paper, published in Immunity in 2005 after multiple rejections by other journals, got little attention. The discovery seemed esoteric.

Weissman and Kariko wrote grants to continue their work. Their applications were rejected. Eventually, two biotech companies took notice of the work: Moderna, in the United States, and BioNTech, in Germany. The companies studied the use of mRNA vaccines for flu, cytomegalovirus and other illnesses, but none moved out of clinical trials for years.

Then the coronavirus emerged. The strikingly effective vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use the modification Kariko and Weissman discovered.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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