Drew Weissman: Pioneering the Path to mRNA Vaccines and Global Health Impact

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Explore the remarkable journey of Dr. Drew Weissman, co-inventor of pivotal RNA modification patents, including US8278036B2 and US8748089B2. Learn how his collaboration with Katalin Karikó led to groundbreaking contributions, including the development of COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna and BioNTech.

Drew Weissman, born on September 7, 1959, is an American physician and immunologist renowned for his groundbreaking contributions to RNA biology. He currently holds the position of the inaugural Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, serves as the director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation, and is a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn).

Weissman’s pioneering research forms the foundation for the development of mRNA vaccines, notably exemplified by the COVID-19 vaccines produced by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. Alongside biochemist Katalin Karikó, Weissman was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2023 for their pivotal discoveries related to nucleoside base modifications, which played a crucial role in enabling the creation of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.

In recognition of his exceptional contributions, Weissman has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Lasker–DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Furthermore, his remarkable achievements led to his election to the National Academy of Medicine in 2022 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the same year.

Drew Weissman

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Early life and education

Drew Weissman was born on September 7, 1959, in Lexington, Massachusetts, to Hal and Adele Weissman. His father, Hal, is Jewish, while his mother, Adele, is of Italian descent. Despite his mother not converting to Judaism, Weissman grew up observing and celebrating all Jewish holidays. His formative years were spent in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he attended Lexington High School, graduating in 1977.

Weissman pursued his academic journey at Brandeis University, earning both his B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1981. During this time, he focused on biochemistry and enzymology, conducting research in the lab of Gerald Fasman. Continuing his education, Weissman engaged in graduate studies in immunology and microbiology at Boston University, culminating in the attainment of his M.D. and Ph.D. in 1987. Subsequently, he completed a residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, followed by a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the mentorship of Anthony Fauci, who was the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at that time.

Career

In 1997, Drew Weissman established his laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania with the aim of delving into RNA and innate immune system biology. Currently holding the position of the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the university, Weissman’s groundbreaking work has significantly influenced the field.

While at the University of Pennsylvania, Weissman, an immunologist focusing on vaccines, serendipitously encountered Katalin Karikó, a biochemist, at a photocopier. They bonded over the shared frustration of limited funding for RNA research. At that time, Karikó was exploring RNA therapy for cerebral diseases and strokes. This chance meeting marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Weissman and Karikó. Weissman, recognizing the potential, threw his support behind Karikó’s shift towards applying RNA technology to vaccines. Despite facing funding and recognition challenges, they persevered, gradually advancing the technology.

A significant hurdle they addressed was the undesirable immune and inflammatory reactions triggered by RNA. From 2005 onward, they published pivotal studies utilizing synthetic nucleosides to modify RNA, preventing its degradation by the body. Although initially overlooked, this breakthrough laid the foundation for RNA therapeutics.

Weissman and Karikó also tackled the obstacle of developing a delivery technique, utilizing lipid nanoparticles to protect mRNA until it reaches the intended area of the body. Demonstrating its efficacy in animals, this innovation marked a critical step.

In 2006, Weissman and Karikó co-founded RNARx with the goal of developing novel RNA therapies. Their modified RNA technology became integral to the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines deployed globally in 2020.

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Weissman has collaborated with scientists at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, contributing to the development and provision of COVID-19 vaccines for the country and neighboring low and middle-income nations lacking immediate vaccine access.

Continuing his pioneering research, Weissman’s laboratory focuses on mRNA applications for next-generation vaccines, gene editing, and mRNA therapeutics. Ongoing projects include the development of pan-coronavirus vaccines, gene editing for antibody production, and treatments for acute inflammatory conditions. Weissman envisions the potential of mRNA technology in creating vaccines for influenza, herpes, and HIV.

Recognition

For their groundbreaking contributions to mRNA research, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó received numerous prestigious awards, including the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the 2020 Rosenstiel Award, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, the Albany Medical Center Prize, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award (jointly with Robert S. Langer).

Weissman was granted an honorary degree by Drexel University College of Medicine. In 2021, he was honored with the Princess of Asturias Award in Scientific Research. The year 2022 brought multiple accolades, including the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal from the NAS (jointly with Katalin Karikó), the Japan Prize, the Robert Koch Prize, the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. Additionally, he was elected to the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2023, Weissman received the Harvey Prize from the Technion in Israel (awarded for the year 2021).

A report in The Washington Post highlighted the global impact of Weissman’s work, noting that he receives fan mail from individuals worldwide expressing gratitude for his contributions that enabled the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. Some messages convey sentiments such as “You’ve made hugs and closeness possible again,” with people requesting pictures or autographs to commemorate his pivotal role in advancing public health.

Patents

Drew Weissman, in collaboration with Katalin Karikó, holds co-inventor status on several patents, including US8278036B2 and US8748089B2. These patents outline crucial modifications necessary to adapt RNA for applications in vaccines and various therapies. Notably, these patents were later licensed to Gary Dahl, the founder and CEO of Cellscript. Subsequently, Dahl facilitated the technology’s licensing to both Moderna and BioNTech, ultimately contributing to the development of their COVID-19 vaccines.

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