Published April 27, 2022
A chance meeting at a photocopier. The promise of a safer way to vaccinate. Unexpected calamities in the lab. Finally, a breakthrough and a major publication, only to be met with … crickets.
That is, until a global pandemic thrust the achievement into the global spotlight.
This is a brief sketch of the truly amazing story of the mRNA technology that created the scientific foundation for the COVID-19 vaccines.
Western New Yorkers and the University at Buffalo community will be treated to the full version on June 4 when Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, visits the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences as the keynote speaker for the school’s Alumni Weekend.
Open to the public, “Collaboration Caught Fire,” the Harrington Lecture/Spring Clinical Day event is part of the 175th anniversary of the Jacobs School. The lecture costs $10 per person for the in-person event (virtual attendance is free), scheduled for 4-6 p.m. June 4 in the M&T Lecture Hall in the Jacobs School.
“Especially for those of us in the sciences, having Dr. Weissman visit UB in person and tell the story of his decades-long dedication and research that paved the way for the first mRNA vaccines is an extraordinary occasion,” said Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School.
“So many times, those of us who’ve done biomedical research have faced the frustration of an unpredictable, zigzagging path of a theory. The story of how Dr. Weissman and his partner turned scientific promise into a medical reality that changed the world is truly inspirational,” Brashear added.
Weissman and his research partner, Katalin Karikó, PhD, worked for years to apply mRNA technology to vaccine development. It was a daunting goal. Few thought it could ever work, and the number of scientific dead ends along the way were piling up. But after persisting for years against long odds, they triumphed: Their technology worked, just when the world needed it most — when millions were dying from a global pandemic.
The technology they created helped lay the scientific foundation for the largest global vaccination campaign in history. Used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, the results of their research are still protecting the majority of Americans from severe disease.
UB researchers can’t wait to hear all about it. “The most exciting part of this is that it’s fundamental, basic research that ended up being really important for vaccine development,” said Jennifer Surtees, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School and lead investigator of the UB COVID-19 genomic-sequencing effort.
“Here were these two people, they kept asking questions, trying to figure out how these things could work, and it ended up having this really impactful importance,” she said. “It was the lovely serendipity of these inquiring minds that met this pandemic.”
Weissman is the inaugural Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, professor in the Department of Medicine and director of Vaccine Research in the Infectious Diseases Division at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Karikó is adjunct professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior vice president at BioNTech.
The two have received multiple honors for their achievement. Last September, they won a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the world’s largest science prize. Two other prizes they have received — Columbia University’s Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, which honors groundbreaking work in medical science, and the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award — are frequently awarded to scientists who then go on to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
The event is made possible by the D.W. Harrington Lecture Endowment. The Harrington is UB’s longest-running lecture series, established in 1896.