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In 2005, Drew Weissman (left) and Katalin Karikó published groundbreaking research on the incorporation of mRNA in therapeutic treatment.

Two Perelman School of Medicine professors received the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for their work on mRNA-based vaccines, paving the way for two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

The prize awarded $3 million dollars to Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research Drew Weissman and Adjunct Professor of Neurosurgery Katalin Karikó for their research. Weissman and Karikó first developed their scientific discovery 16 years ago while investigating mRNA as a potential therapeutic treatment, Penn Today reported. Their research led to Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna using the technology in their COVID-19 vaccines. 

The Breakthrough Prize, founded in 2013 by a group of people including Mark Zuckerberg and Anne Wojcicki, honors individuals who make notable advancements in the life sciences, mathematics, and fundamental physics. The award has five recipients annually who are invited to a live, televised awards ceremony. This year’s celebration, however, was postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic.

Weissman and Karikó published groundbreaking research in 2005 on the incorporation of mRNA in therapeutic treatment, exhibiting how mRNA could be modified, effectively enter the body, and reach its intended target. Their research showed how to inhibit the immune system response long enough for mRNA to slip into cells and create antibodies to fight off the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.  

Prior mRNA vaccines had been unsuccessful and unsafe in preventing infectious diseases in animal models, as immune systems failed to respond sufficiently, Live Science reported. Weissman and Karikó are now developing an RNA-based gene therapy for sickle cell anemia by targeting bone marrow stem cells.

The two scientists have been recipients of several other national and international awards, including the Princess of Asturias Award and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, Penn Today reported.