The BUILDING THE FOUNDATION AWARD recognizes an individual(s) whose basic research discoveries played a pivotal role in the response to COVID-19.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a pioneer in mRNA therapeutics and currently serves as Director of Vaccine Research and Professor of Medicine in the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Together with his collaborator, Katalin Karikó, PhD, Dr. Weissman discovered a way to modify mRNA to facilitate uptake in the body without causing dangerous immune reactions. This innovation unlocked the therapeutic potential of mRNA, including serving as the foundational technology underpinning the first two FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines, developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, boasted an unprecedented over 94% success rates – which experts believe is in large part due to the nucleoside-modified mRNA-lipid nanoparticle vaccine platform developed by Drs. Karikó, Pardi, and Weissman.
Modified mRNA technology has profound implications for the future of health care, including possible applications for numerous vaccines and therapeutics. Dr. Weissman’s lab is currently developing modified mRNA vaccines for multiple infectious diseases, including HIV and influenza. His team has also developed methods to deploy modified mRNA to replace genetically deficient proteins, effectively deliver therapeutic proteins, and edit the genome. In several notable studies, Dr. Weissman’s lab documented their ability to specifically target cells and organs, including the lung, heart, brain, and bone marrow stem cells, which has enormous potential for treating many diseases. For example, Dr. Weissman’s lab is currently working to develop a treatment to cure sickle cell anemia with a single injection of targeted modified mRNA.
After receiving his MD and PhD from Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Weissman completed his residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and accepted a fellowship in allergy/immunology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). After finishing his training under National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Weissman remained at NIH for an additional four years to oversee and manage a section of Dr. Fauci’s HIV research. During this time, Dr. Weissman trained a number of notable physician scientists, including Ambassador Mark Dybul, the former U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator tasked with implementation of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) under George W. Bush, and Dr. Jintanat Ananworanich, Clinical Development Leader at the Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute. Dr. Weissman received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Brandeis University in biochemistry, where he conducted research in the lab of Dr. Gerald Fasman.
Dr. Weissman’s research has been funded by both federal and private grantors, including the NIH, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) , the Gates Foundation, AmFAR, and BioNTech, resulting in over 150 peer-reviewed publications. Dr. Weissman’s accolades include receiving the Celebration of Innovation Deal of the Year Award from the Penn Center for Innovation, the Norman L. Letvin Duke CHAVI-ID Scholar Award, the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Medical Science, Research!America’s ‘Building the Foundation’ Award, Brandeis’ Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Inaugural President’s Distinguished Speaker from the Association of Senior and Emeritus Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also been inducted into the Association of American Physicians. Additionally, Dr. Weissman is frequently featured on news programs, including CNN, ABC, and BBC News, offering his expertise on infectious diseases and other public health issues.
Dr. Weissman has benefited from the mentorship of numerous distinguished researchers over the years and is committed to providing the same service for the next generation of scientists. Dr. Weissman regularly trains both PhD and undergraduate students in his lab, many of whom have gone on to hold prominent positions in academia, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies. Additionally, Dr. Weissman has taught several graduate level courses over the years, including CAMB 708, HIV Virology/Pathogenesis/Cure Seminar, which is rated as one of the top courses offered.