amfAR Grantee Dr. Drew Weissman Awarded Nobel Prize

Dr. Weissman and collaborator Dr. Katalin Karikó instrumental in development of mRNA Covid vaccines

Along with collaborator Dr. Katalin Karikó, veteran HIV vaccine researcher and amfAR grantee Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania has been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on mRNA, which proved instrumental in the development of effective vaccines for Covid-19.

Drs. Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó of the University of Pennsylvania.
Drs. Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó of the University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Peggy Peterson/Courtesy Penn Medicine

“We could not be more thrilled for Drs. Weissman and Karikó on this announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “There is obviously no greater accolade than the Nobel Prize, and all of us at amfAR extend our heartfelt congratulations to both scientists on their lifesaving accomplishments and this richly deserved honor.”

For over three decades, mRNAs had been tested as vaccine and therapeutic candidates, but with little success for two important reasons. First, when mRNA is delivered to cells, it induces a dangerous and potentially lethal immune response. It is also very fragile. Drs. Weissman and Karikó figured out that by wrapping the mRNA in specialized lipid shells, known as nanoparticles or “fat bubbles,” they could protect it from being rapidly dissolved in tissue and facilitate its entry into immune cells.

Among its earliest therapeutic applications, the research was applied to the evaluation of this mRNA/lipid strategy to produce anti-HIV antibodies in mice. It subsequently attracted the attention of the drug companies Moderna and BioNTech, who would eventually use the technology as the foundation of their highly effective Covid-19 vaccines.

As The Wall Street Journal wrote in December 2020, “many of the new technologies and approaches employed to create potent Covid-19 vaccines and therapies trace their origins to the desperate search, starting in the early 1980s, to slow the spread of HIV.”

Dr. Weissman is currently a co-investigator on a multi-year amfAR-funded research project aimed at developing and testing a complex gene therapy approach to curing HIV.

“As with so many seminal research advances, the scientific community was slow to appreciate the importance of the work of Drs. Weissman and Karikó,” said Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, amfAR Senior Scientific Consultant and a Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Their work has transformed the field of vaccine research, and the world has seen in dramatic fashion the lifesaving potential of their achievements.”

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