October 22, 2021

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COVID Vaccine Pioneers Among Others Win The 2021 Lasker Awards In Medicine

Two scientists whose work was crucial in developing the Covid-19 vaccines are among this year’s recipients of the Lasker Awards.

Katalin Kariko, a bio-chemist from Hungary and currently a senior vice president at BioNTech, and Dr. Drew Weissman, a physician and a professor in vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, are co-winners of this year’s

The pair’s breakthrough research about messenger RNA (mRNA) from 2005 was the cornerstone in the development of Covid-19 vaccines. But when they originally published their findings in the journal Immunity—after multiple rejections from other journals—the scientific community was uninterested. The technology was thought to be inferior to other methods of immunization, according to the New York Times.

mRNA is a molecule that exists in every cell of every single organism. It provides instructions to cells to make proteins by transcribing the DNA and carrying it to the cytoplasm, where the proteins are assembled. Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko found that when they added mRNA to cells, it was instantly destroyed by the cells. But, with a slight modification, they could stop the cells from destroying it, and prompt the cells to briefly manufacture whatever protein they chose.

Over the years, many attempts have been made to use the technology to develop vaccines for the flu, cytomegalovirus, and others, without success. Yet, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Modern and Pfizer-BioNTech were able to use the technology to develop highly effective vaccines for the disease.

Founded in 1945 by Albert Lasker— an American businessman who played a major role in shaping modern advertising—and his wife Mary Lasker, the Lasker Awards have been awarded annually to “living persons who have performed public service on behalf of medicine” or “who have made major contributions to medical science”.

The awards are oftentimes referred to as “America’s Nobels” and has reputation for predicting future Nobel Prize winners in Medicine. Eighty-two previous winners of the Lasker awards have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Cover Image: Penn Medicine

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