Drew Weissman

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Drew Weissman (Physician-Scientist )

Drew Weissman, born on September 7, 1959, is a distinguished American physician-scientist and Nobel Prize laureate renowned for his significant contributions to the field of RNA biology. His pioneering research has played a pivotal role in the development of mRNA vaccines, most notably the widely recognized COVID-19 vaccines produced by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna.

Weissman holds the prestigious position of the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, serving as the director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation and holding a professorship in medicine at the esteemed Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn).

Alongside his esteemed research partner, Katalin Karikó, Weissman has garnered numerous accolades, including the esteemed Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. In 2023, their groundbreaking contributions led to the coveted Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, jointly awarded to them for their pivotal discoveries related to nucleoside base modifications that paved the way for the development of highly effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.

Within the university’s academic setting, Weissman, an immunologist with a specialization in vaccine research, fortuitously crossed paths with his future colleague and collaborator, Katalin Karikó, during a chance encounter at a photocopier. Their shared frustration over the lack of funding for RNA research would ultimately ignite a remarkable partnership that would shape the course of scientific history.

Drew Weissman

Date of Birth

Birth Place

Country

Doctoral advisor

Known

September 7, 1959

Lexington, Massachusetts, U.S.

U.S [3]

Ann Marshak-Rothstein

Modified mRNA technologies used in COVID-19 vaccines

Drew Weissman More

Awards


• Rosenstiel Award (2020)
• Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (2021)
• VinFuture Prize (2022)
• Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2022)
• Harvey Prize (2023 awarded for the year 2021)
• Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2023)

Institutions


Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania

Thesis


  • Regulation of B Lymphocytes with Reagents That Cross-Link Surface
  • Immunoglobulin (1987)

Early & Personal Life

Drew Weissman was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, on September 7, 1959, to a family with a Jewish father and an Italian mother. Although his mother didn’t formally convert to Judaism, Drew 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.

Drew embarked on his academic journey, earning his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and Master of Arts (M.A.) degrees from Brandeis University in 1981. During this time, he focused on the fields of biochemistry and enzymology and conducted research under the guidance of Gerald Fasman. Subsequently, he pursued graduate studies in immunology and microbiology, ultimately obtaining both his Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees in 1987 from Boston University.

Following his academic achievements, Drew entered the world of medical practice. He commenced his medical career with a residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, followed by a prestigious fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During this fellowship, he had the privilege of working under the mentorship of Anthony Fauci, who was then serving as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH.

Active Career

In 1997, Drew Weissman made a significant career move by joining the University of Pennsylvania, where he embarked on establishing his research laboratory with a primary focus on delving into the realms of RNA and innate immune system biology. Today, he holds the esteemed position of the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the university.

During his tenure at the university, Weissman, an immunologist with a specialization in vaccine research, had a fortuitous encounter with his future colleague and collaborator, Katalin Karikó, right by the office photocopier. It was during this casual meeting that they commiserated about the glaring lack of funding for RNA research, igniting a conversation that would eventually lead to groundbreaking discoveries.

At the time, Karikó was actively exploring RNA therapy for cerebral diseases and strokes. Weissman recognized the immense potential of their collaboration and began working closely with her. Together, they redirected their efforts toward applying RNA technology to the development of vaccines. Their journey was not without its challenges, as the RNA they were working with often triggered unwanted immune and inflammatory responses as adverse side effects.

In a pivotal moment in 2005, Weissman and Karikó achieved a major breakthrough. They published a landmark study that harnessed synthetic nucleosides to modify RNA, effectively preventing its degradation by the body. This transformative advancement laid the crucial groundwork for the field of RNA therapeutics, even though it garnered relatively little attention at the time.

In 2006, their collaborative efforts led to the founding of RNARx, a company dedicated to the development of innovative RNA therapies. Fast forward to 2020, and their modified RNA technology emerged as the cornerstone of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which swiftly became instrumental in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Weissman envisions that this same pioneering technology could be leveraged to create vaccines against other formidable challenges, including influenza, herpes, and HIV.

Beyond his groundbreaking work in the United States, Weissman has also extended his expertise to international collaborations. He has been actively engaged with scientists at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University in the development and provision of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly for Thailand and neighboring low-income countries that may face challenges in securing immediate access to these vital vaccines.

Recognition

In recognition of their groundbreaking contributions to mRNA-related research, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó received an array of prestigious awards and honors. These accolades include 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 (shared with Robert S. Langer).

Weissman’s exceptional contributions also earned him an honorary degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. In 2021, he was honored with the Princess of Asturias Award in the Scientific Research category. The year 2022 brought further recognition with the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (jointly awarded with Katalin Karikó), and the Japan Prize. Additionally, Weissman was bestowed with the Robert Koch Prize, the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, and memberships in both the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 2023, he continued to receive accolades for his exceptional work, being honored with the Harvey Prize of the Technion in Israel (awarded for the year 2021).

Weissman’s impact extended beyond accolades, as he received heartfelt fan mail from individuals worldwide expressing gratitude for his contributions that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines. These messages conveyed sentiments like, “You’ve made hugs and closeness possible again,” while others sought his photograph or autograph, reflecting the profound impact his work had on people’s lives and the global fight against the pandemic.

Patents

Weissman holds co-inventorship on multiple patents, notably including US8278036B2 and US8748089B2, which were jointly filed with his colleague Katalin Karikó. These patents provide intricate insights into the necessary modifications essential for rendering RNA suitable for applications in vaccines and various therapeutic treatments.

In a significant turn of events, these patents were licensed to Gary Dahl, the founder and CEO of Cellscript. Subsequently, Dahl facilitated the licensing of this groundbreaking technology to both Moderna and BioNTech. This pivotal step ultimately led to the integration of the patented techniques into the development of their COVID-19 vaccines, contributing significantly to the global effort to combat the pandemic.

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