Drew Weissman shared the 2023 Nobel Prize in medicine with his University of Pennsylvania research partner, Katalin Karikó, for the role of their research in developing vaccines against COVID-19 and other diseases.
Weissman was born on September 7, 1959, in Lexington, Massachusetts, to a Jewish father and Italian mother. While his mother did not convert to Judaism, he grew up celebrating all the Jewish holidays and, along with his wife, Mary Ellen, sent their children to Hebrew School. Weissman told the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, “I’m more of a Daoist, in that point of view that I think that Earth, nature is the supreme — the main component of life,” he said. “And that’s what needs to be celebrated.”
He attended Lexington High School, graduating in 1977. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Brandeis University in 1981, where he majored in biochemistry and enzymology. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. in 1987 at Boston University. Afterward, Weissman did a residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School, followed by a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the supervision of Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In 1997, Weissman moved to the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania to start his laboratory to study RNA and innate immune system biology. He is now the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the university and Director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovations.
Weissman met his future colleague and collaborator Katalin Karikó at a photocopier, where they sympathized about the lack of funding for RNA research. Weissman began collaborating with Karikó, and in 2005, they published a landmark study that used synthetic nucleosides to modify the RNA to prevent its degradation by the body.
“When we gave RNA as an injection into a mouse, the mice got sick,” Weissman said. “It was because the RNA was inflamed. What we figured out is that our body uses RNA to distinguish pathogens from cells. So it detects viruses, bacteria, other parasites, other pathogens, mainly, but not exclusively, on their RNA.”
By modifying the base components, the nucleosides of RNA, they could make it non-inflammatory. This breakthrough laid the groundwork for using RNA therapeutics but was overlooked for years.
In 2006, Weissman and Karikó co-founded RNARx. Their objective was to develop novel RNA therapies.
In 2020, their modified RNA technology became the critical foundational component of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, deployed worldwide against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The discoveries by the two Nobel Laureates were critical for developing effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 during the pandemic that began in early 2020.” the Nobel Prize committee said in announcing the award. “Through their groundbreaking findings, which have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system, the laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”
Weissman has also been collaborating with scientists at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University to develop and provide COVID-19 vaccines for the country and neighboring low-income countries that may not have immediate access to the vaccine.
Weissman hopes the same technology can be used to develop vaccines against influenza, herpes, and HIV.
In addition to the Nobel, the duo received 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 (also with Robert S. Langer).
In 2021, Weissman was awarded the Princess of Asturias Award in the category of Scientific Research. In 2022, he was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal of the NAS jointly with Katalin Karikó, and the Japan Prize. Also, in 2022, he received the Robert Koch Prize and the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2023, he received the Harvey Prize of the Technion in Israel (awarded for 2021).
Weissman obtained an honorary degree from the Drexel University College of Medicine.
Weissman’s longtime friend Sharon Taffet told the Exponent that whenever she asked his wife about him, “She would always say, ‘Oh, Drew’s busy saving the world.’” Taffett added, “The answer was fascinating because nobody could ever have known how true it would turn out to be.”
Sources: “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023,” Press Release, NobelPrize.org, (October 2, 2023).
Sasha Rogelberg, “Penn Professor ‘Saves the World’ with COVID Vaccine Research,” Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, (December 16, 2021).
Philissa Cramer, “Drew Weissman, Jewish immunologist, wins Nobel Prize for his work on Covid vaccines,” JTA, (October 2, 2023).
“Drew Weissman,” Wikipedia.