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Nobel Prize Winners Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman Talk Vaccines at Pre-Health Event

Nobel Prize winner Katalin Karikó receives an Honorary Doctorate of Science at at the 2023 Commencement Exercises. Karikó and fellow Nobel laureate Drew Weissman discussed their research at a Tuesday night event.
Nobel Prize winner Katalin Karikó receives an Honorary Doctorate of Science at at the 2023 Commencement Exercises. Karikó and fellow Nobel laureate Drew Weissman discussed their research at a Tuesday night event. By Julian J. Giordano
By Angelina J. Parker and Samantha D. Wu, Crimson Staff Writers

Nobel Prize winners Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman discussed their medical research and approach to anti-science sentiments at an event hosted by the IvyLeague+ Pre-Health Society on Tuesday night.

Karikó and Weissman were jointly awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries in mRNA technology that led to the creation of Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines. Karikó is an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, and Weissman works as a Penn Medicine physician.

UPenn undergraduates Vishal Kanigicherla and Vincent Ni moderated the panel, kicking off the event with a discussion of the potential for RNA-based gene therapy to cure genetic diseases and revolutionize vaccine production.

Weissman — whose lab is currently focusing on infectious disease vaccines for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, Hepatitis C, and influenza — spoke about expanding RNA-based therapy to applications beyond Covid-19. According to Weissman, vaccines for autoimmune diseases could become a promising alternative to immunosuppressive drugs.

Weissman also pointed to the possibility of RNA-based vaccines subsidizing the research and development process, making vaccines more globally accessible.

“It’s going to make it equitable,” Weissman added.

Karikó pointed to some of the positive impacts of big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna, which have played a major role in the development of Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic.

“You can see that the advantage of a Big Pharma is there, that they have money, and they know how to do things, and the people there — when something had to be scaled up — they immediately had the knowledge,” Karikó said.

Weissman and Karikó also explained how research labs have increasingly switched to an “open lab” system over the past few years and encouraged students to take advantage of the system to seek new relationships.

“In the old days, your lab, you had a door that just shut and nobody came in and nobody could talk to anybody, and now everything is open,” Weissman said. “So people from all the different labs see each other and talk to each other.”

Brown University alumnus Justin W. Perry, the president and co-founder of the IvyLeague+ Pre-Health Society, said in an interview after the event that he hoped the session encouraged attendees to “persevere in spite of obstacles as researchers” and to “embrace serendipitous interactions with colleagues.”

In particular, Perry said Karikó and Weissman “faced a lot of skepticism” in their work “when they focused on mRNA research, when that field wasn’t as much in the spotlight.”

The moderated panel was followed by an open Q&A with audience members, where a student asked about rising anti-vaccine sentiments during the pandemic.

“There are some people that are just never gonna believe a scientist, that they’re so anti-science,” Weissman said.

Instead, Weissman said, “the trick is finding the right messenger.”

“For some, it’s scientists, for some, it’s clergy or other pastoral leaders. For some, it’s politicians, for some, it’s community leaders,” he said. “You have to find the right messenger and then enlist them to help you convince people to take vaccines.”

—Staff writer Angelina J. Parker can be reached at angelina.parker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @angelinajparker.

—Staff writer Samantha D. Wu can be reached at samantha.wu@thecrimson.com.

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