A team led by American scientist Drew Weissman won the second edition of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine with a work focused on mRNA technology, which is now used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to prevent COVID-19.
The award was delivered in a ceremony held at the Rectory of the University of Lisbon on 18 February, and was attended by the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who chaired the session, the Rector of the University of Lisbon, Luís Ferreira, the Chairman of the BIAL Foundation, Luís Portela, Jury member Menno Witter and award-wining authors Drew Weissman and Michael J. Hogan.
An important breakthrough of this technology for vaccine creation was published in 2017, even before the pandemic, in the research report “Zika virus protection by a single low-dose nucleoside-modified mRNA vaccination”, published in Nature. The research report describes the complex work to engineer an mRNA vaccine to treat a disease and demonstrates its efficacy in mice and in monkeys.
The BIAL Award in Biomedicine 2021, with the amount of 300,000 Euros, distinguishes the work of Weissman and 36 other co-authors, researchers from the Universities of Pennsylvania, Duke and Kansas State (USA), Harvard Medical School (USA), National Institutes of Health (USA), Bioqual Inc. (USA), Acuitas Therapeutics (Canada) and BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals (Germany) at the time of publication of the research report.
The pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 has accelerated research in this area, but this work paves the way for a new generation of vaccines with the potential to revolutionize the treatment of a large number of diseases.
While traditional vaccines often use a modified virus to provoke a reaction in the immune system, the technology investigated by the BIAL Award in Biomedicine winning team uses a synthetic mRNA to allow the body to prepare itself against the disease. To do so, it uses an mRNA that makes the body’s own cells synthesize a viral protein that stimulates the body's immune response.
Neuroscientist Ralph Adolphs, president of the jury of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine, considers that “this work represents an extraordinary achievement. It is a tour de force in molecular biology aimed at human health, and achieved the technological leap in mRNA vaccines that is the basis for the vaccines currently administered against SARS-CoV-2 to deal with the COVID pandemic in countries around the world”.
Adolphs emphasizes that “there is now substantial evidence that mRNA technology has enormous applications: in addition to being used to deal with the current pandemic, mRNA vaccines are also being developed for infectious diseases such as malaria and influenza, and also for non-infectious diseases such as cancer".
The winning work was chosen from 47 papers nominated among the most important research reports in the last 10 years in biomedicine. Applications included basic research studies, clinical trials, work in neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, and infectious diseases.
The next edition of the BIAL Award in Biomedicine, promoted by the BIAL Foundation, will take place in 2023.
Authors of the award-winning work and their institutions at the time of publication of the research report:
Department of Medicine, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Norbert Pardi, Michael J. Hogan, Hiromi Muramatsu, Veronica M. Holmes & Drew Weissman
Viral Pathogenesis Section, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institutes of Health, USA
Rebecca S. Pelc, Christina R. DeMaso, Kimberly A. Dowd & Theodore C. Pierson
Bioqual Inc., Rockville, USA
Hanne Andersen, Wendeline Wagner, Alex Granados, Jack Greenhouse, Michelle Walker & Mark G. Lewis
Duke Human Vaccine Institute, Duke University School of Medicine, USA
Laura L. Sutherland, Richard M. Scearce, Robert Parks, Jae-Sung Yu, Charles E. McGee, Gregory D. Sempowski & Barton F. Haynes
Department of Microbiology, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Elinor Willis & Scott E. Hensley
Acuitas Therapeutics, Vancouver, Canada
Barbara L. Mui, Ying K. Tam, Thomas D. Madden & Michael J. Hope
Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine and the Biosecurity Research Institute, Kansas State University, USA
Yan-Jang Huang, Dana Vanlandingham & Stephen Higgs
Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, USA
Harikrishnan Balachandran, Sujata Sahu, Michelle Lifton & Sampa Santra
BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, Germany
Vaccine Research Center, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, National Institutes of Health, USA
Barney S. Graham