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Drew Weissman (left) and Katalin Karikó (right) were chosen out of 599 nominations to receive award by Vietnamese Prime Minister. Credit: Courtesy of Penn Medicine

Two Perelman School of Medicine Professors received the VinFuture Grand Prize for their contributions to the development of mRNA vaccine technology, providing the foundation for two COVID-19 vaccines.

The inaugural prize awarded $3 million dollars to Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research Drew Weissman and Adjunct Professor of Neurosurgery Katalin Karikó for their research. The award was presented by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Jan. 20, after being narrowed down from 599 total nominations from over 60 countries. 

Weissman and Karikó published their research in 2005 while investigating the potential therapeutic treatment of mRNA. Following successful animal and human trials, their breakthrough discovery led to Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna using mRNA technology in the COVID-19 vaccines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a combined total of over 500 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered in the United States alone.

The annual VinFuture Prize is managed and sponsored by the VinFuture Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization based in Vietnam dedicated to honoring transformational technological innovations. The foundation was established in 2020 with a $100 million endowment from Vingroup Founder and Chairman Phạm Nhật Vượng, and his wife Phạm Thu Hương.

Following its inaugural ceremony, the VinFuture Grand Prize will be awarded annually to breakthrough research and technological innovations. Nominations are assessed by a 12-member Pre-screening Committee and ultimately by an 11-member Prize Council. Three special VinFuture Prizes, valued at $500,000 each, for female innovators, innovators from developing countries, and innovators with outstanding achievements in emerging fields, will also be awarded annually.

Weissman and Karikó have been honored with other awards for their scientific contributions, such as the Princess of Asturias Award and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. Most recently, the two scientists received the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, with a similar prize value of $3 million dollars.