Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, whose work was fundamental in developing mRNA vaccines against Covid, were among the winners of the annual awards given to noteworthy scientists.
In December 2020, the FDA authorized Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine, and just one week later authorized a vaccine from Moderna—less than a year after the World Health Organization proclaimed the start of the current pandemic. Both of these vaccines are built on mRNA, the science of which was in part pioneered by Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania. The pair of researchers, who’ve been working together since for over a decade, were just awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences to support their ongoing research. For his part, Weissman is thrilled that the years he’s spent on the technology have paid off to help fight the pandemic.
“We were working on many different vaccines starting in 2015, even a little earlier,” Weissman says. “We studied around 20 different vaccines for 20 different pathogens, and for just about every one of them in our animal models, we had 100% protection.” Even with that, he was nervous as the Covid vaccines made their way through human trials, because what works in animals doesn’t always work with people, he says. “I was mostly relieved when the phase three trials came out and we had 95% protection,” he continues.
But Weissman isn’t resting on his accomplishments. His team is working to understand how the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is changing so that pharmaceutical companies are better able to vaccinate against future variants of the disease. His research team is also focused on developing a vaccine that could help prevent future coronavirus pandemics.
“There have been three coronavirus epidemics or pandemics,” he says. “That tells us there’s going to be more.” To help stem future epidemics, his team is working on a vaccine that would help develop antibodies against parts of the virus that are common to those coronaviruses and don’t mutate very often. “We think that that will be useful for any variants that appear in the future,” he adds.
Weissman and Karikó won one of the five $3 million Breakthrough Prizes this year, which were shared among nine different scientists working in Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics. Additionally, the Breakthrough Prizes also awarded three $100,000 New Horizons in Physics prizes, three $100,000 New Horizons Prizes for Mathematics and three $50,000 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes. The New Horizons awards honor work by early-career scientists and the Maryam Mirzakhani award is for women working in mathematics. A total of $15,750,000 in prizes are being awarded.
These awards are granted by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which was founded by billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia. This is the tenth year that the Foundation has awarded the prizes, which are also sponsored by Google cofounder Sergey Brin; 23&Me cofounder Anne Wojcicki; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; Tencent chair Ma Huateng and Alibaba founder Jack Ma.
Breakthrough Prizes In Life Sciences
In addition to Weissman and Karikó, a $3 million prize in Life Sciences was awarded to Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman and Pascal Mayer. These three researchers helped develop some of the key inventions that made it possible to rapidly sequence a full human genome at low cost. The first human genome took over a decade to sequence at a cost of about a billion dollars. But with these innovations, genomes can be sequenced in a day for less than a thousand dollars.
Another $3 million Life Sciences Award Winner was Jeffery W. Kelly at the Scripps Research Institute. Kelly’s work is geared towards the treatment of amyloid diseases, which can impact the heart and nervous system and can also cause neurodegeneration. The first company he founded, FoldRx, developed the drug tafamdis to treat this type of disease, which the FDA considered a first-in-class medication. FoldRx was sold to Pfizer in 2010, and Kelly has since cofounded two other companies: Proteostasis Therapeutics, which merged with Yumanity Therapeutics in 2020, and San Diego-based Misfolding Diagnostics.
Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics
Takuro Mochizuki, a professor at Kyoto University, was awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in mathematics. Mochizuki’s work focuses on complex geometry and algebra. A previous winner of the Japan Academy Prize in 2011, for work that according to the awardees was one of the “fundamental achievements in mathematics of this century,” Mochizuki’s work explores some of the most cutting edge spaces in the field.
Breakthrough Prize In Fundamental Physics
Hidetoshi Katori of the University of Tokyo and Jun Ye of the University of Colorado were awarded $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Their research (conducted independently) helped lay the foundation for the development of the optical lattice atomic clock. These clocks, which allow for ultra-precise measurements of time, enable scientists to better understand gravity and new physics. Additionally, perfection of this clock could enable scientists to better predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. And for the rest of us? These clocks could make GPS devices and satellites even more accurate.