Scientists behind mRNA vaccine technologies win Frontiers of Knowledge award
Katalin Karikó, Robert Langer and Drew Weissman win the BBVA Foundation’s Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biology and Biomedicine for advancing messenger RNA (mRNA) therapies.
For their contributions to messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics and related delivery technology, BBVA Foundation The Frontiers of Knowledge Prize in Biology and Biomedicine was awarded to Katalin Karikó, Robert Langer and Drew Weissman.
Announcing the fourteenth edition of the award, the BBVA Foundation Committee noted that to date, the most outstanding product of the work of the winners has been “the rapid and rapid development of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2”, which have been shown “effectively to provide protection against severe COVID-19. The committee notes that vaccines now containing the pandemic are only the first wave of a technology that is “on the verge of spreading to other therapeutic areas such as autoimmunity, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, enzyme deficiency and other viral infections”.
Óscar Marín, secretary of the committee and director of the Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at King’s College London, UK, said: “This award recognizes the inventors of two technologies that together have not only given us vaccines against COVID -19, but have also opened up a whole panorama of therapeutic possibilities in the most diverse fields. Vaccines are the first example of the potential for these two technologies to come together, but clinical trials and further research into their use against other diseases are already underway.
Karikó and Weissman, a biochemist and immunologist respectively, and Langer, a chemical engineer, are the authors of critical breakthroughs in the chain of scientific discoveries that have made messenger RNA therapies a reality, the committee said.
In terms of contributions, Langer, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published an article in Nature during the 1970s, demonstrating that nucleic acid molecules such as RNA could be encapsulated by nanoparticles for release in the body. This idea, the committee said, allowed “the packaging of therapeutic macromolecules, including mRNA, and delivery into cells, allowing the cellular translation machinery to synthesize the protein/antigen.”
Later came the contribution of Karikó and Weissman: “to develop mRNA modification methods to prevent the immune system from recognizing and destroying mRNA”, in the words of the award citation.
“Karikó and Weissman discovered how to modify mRNA molecules in a way that made them suitable as a therapeutic agent [by eliminating the inflammatory reaction], and Langer invented the vehicle, the encapsulation technology that allowed mRNA to be delivered into the body. In both cases, said Marín, we speak of “progress par excellence”.
Karikó and Weissman were nominated for the Frontiers of Knowledge award by Isabel Varela, president of the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM), Larry Jameson, dean of the Perelman School of Medicine and vice president of the University of Pennsylvania, Eric Topol, executive vice president of the Scripps Research Institute, and Elias Zerhouni, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. Langer’s appointment was proposed by Antonio López Díaz, Rector Magnificus of the University of Santiago de Compostela, and by María José Alonso, professor of pharmacy and pharmaceutical technology at the same university.
The three scientists, after hearing about the prize, explained how they were rejected, had difficulty obtaining grants and were not believed by the scientific community due to the novelty of their work. Marín said they are a “symbol of perseverance”, resisting the effects of the “short-termism that often characterizes science policy”. He added: “Their triumph now speaks to the difficulty of predicting what will work in biology and how many breakthroughs may have been abandoned because we didn’t take risks.”