Dr. Drew Weissman, a Lexington native who on Monday received the Nobel Prize in medicine with Dr. Katalin Karikó for their messenger RNA research that helped make leading COVID-19 vaccines possible, said he got a “cryptic” text message from his longtime colleague at 4 that morning.
“Did Thomas call?” Weissman recalled Karikó asking. She had received a phone call 20 minutes earlier from Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Assembly.
“I texted her back and said, ‘No, who’s Thomas?’” Weissman recalled at a briefing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works as a physician and vaccine researcher. “And she says, ‘Nobel Prize.’ And then I call her and we talked ... And we said, ‘This has to be a prank. Some anti-vaxxers are playing with us and this just can’t be real.’”
Weissman, an alumnus of Brandeis University and Boston University, then FaceTimed his daughter who works in medical communications. She advised him to wait for the Nobel committee’s announcement later that morning.
“We sat in bed, and [I was] looking at my wife and my cat who’s begging for food,” Weissman said to laughter. “And we wait, and the press conference starts, and it was real. So then we really became excited.”
Nobel officials said the work of Karikó and Weissman “was critical for making the mRNA vaccine platform suitable for clinical use at a time when it was most needed, making this an extraordinary contribution to medicine and paving the way for future mRNA applications.”
Indeed, if it weren’t for the findings of the two Penn scientists, Cambridge-based Moderna — which made one of the COVID vaccines and is the biggest homegrown drug company in the state by headcount — wouldn’t exist. Years before COVID hit, Moderna licensed the mRNA technology from Penn and hopes to use it to inoculate against other diseases, including the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
For Weissman and Karikó, who met over a copy machine at Penn in 1997, the Nobel Prize, for which they will share a cash prize of 11 million Swedish kronor (about $1 million), was vindication of the highest magnitude.
Despite skepticism from the scientific community and struggles to get funding and publish papers, the researchers collaborated for years on ways to modify messenger RNA, which provides instructions to cells to make proteins, in the hopes of creating new vaccines and drugs.
They ignored conventional wisdom that synthetic mRNA was tantalizing but ultimately unusable, and came up with a chemical tweak to prevent the immune system from attacking the substance as an invading pathogen and destroying it.
That discovery, described in a series of scientific papers starting in 2005, largely flew under the radar at first, but it led to the creation of two momentous biotech companies: Moderna, and BioNTech, a German startup.
BioNTech, partnering with Pfizer, and Moderna harnessed the technology to create COVID vaccines that have been administered billions of times globally, helped tame the pandemic, and made fortunes for the founders of the biotechs. (The companies pay a fraction of their mRNA vaccine sales as royalties to Penn, which patented the technology.)
Some scientists had predicted that Weissman and Karikó would receive a Nobel Prize for the work they did at Penn.
“If anyone asks me whom to vote for some day down the line, I would put them front and center,” Derrick Rossi, a stem cell biologist in Newton who helped found Moderna in 2010, told the Globe in late 2020, before the Food and Drug Administration cleared the vaccines. “That fundamental discovery is going to go into medicines that help the world.”
On Monday, Rossi said he had made the prediction long before that.
“It was inevitable,” the serial entrepreneur said. “It’s a really, really important discovery that they made. Look at the impacts it’s had, on the global pandemic, for one, but also the enormous pipeline of mRNA drugs that are in development across the globe.” Their research, he added, “was totally lost until we dug it out of the pile.”
Karikó, a Hungarian-American professor at Sagan’s University in Hungary and an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn, said Monday that she never wanted fame — she just wanted to advance science.
“If you like the spotlight, you should be an actor or an actress,” she said. “If you would like to solve problems, then science is for you.”
Before joining Penn in 1997, Weissman was a fellow at the National Institutes of Health studying HIV in the lab of Dr. Anthony Fauci. Weissman received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brandeis University. He earned his MD and PhD from Boston University and completed his residency at Beth Israel Hospital.
“Dr. Weissman’s development of the mRNA platform has saved countless lives and alleviated much suffering around the world,” BU’s interim president, Kenneth W. Freeman, said in a statement.
Weissman, speaking with an eye toward the future during the Monday briefing, lamented what he views as a paucity of young people entering scientific fields.
“Nowadays, there’s really a dearth of young people wanting to go into science, wanting to go into academics, wanting to investigate,” he said. “They want to do IT and become rich and retire or whatever. But for me, science is a place if you want to ask questions — if you want to say, ‘can I understand things better, can I investigate new things,’ then science is the place for you.”
“It was always a dream, but I never imagined it would happen.”— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 2, 2023
Drew Weissman’s research partner Katalin Karikó called him early this morning with some incredible news – they had been awarded the 2023 medicine prize. Hear his reaction to becoming one of our newest laureates. pic.twitter.com/b6GV2uJr2y
Brandeis noted that Weissman and Karikó both received honorary doctorates from the Waltham university during its May 2022 commencement.
“Drew’s pioneering research in messenger RNA is a true breakthrough for science,” Brandeis president Ronald Liebowitz said in a statement. “His remarkable achievement is one of the great scientific accomplishments of our time.”
#ProudtoBU: @bualumni Drew Weissman (@WeissmanLab) & his research collaborator, Katalin Karikó, have won the 2023 @NobelPrize in Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work on the technology used in Pfizer-BioNTech & Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. 🎉 https://t.co/htZi2l5bCF— Boston University (@BU_Tweets) October 2, 2023
Weissman had studied messenger RNA since the 1990s with Karikó, who joined BioNTech in 2013 as a senior vice president and worked there until 2022. (She’s now a consultant to the firm.) After years of trial and error, they figured out a way to make messenger RNA usable in medicine.
Every strand of mRNA is made up of four molecular building blocks called nucleosides. But in its altered, synthetic form, one of those building blocks, like a misaligned wheel on a car, was throwing everything off by signaling the immune system. So Karikó and Weissman subbed it out for a slightly tweaked version, creating a hybrid mRNA that could sneak its way into cells without alerting the body’s defenses.
“That was a key discovery,” said Norbert Pardi, an assistant professor of medicine at Penn and frequent collaborator, the Globe and STAT reported in November 2020. “Karikó and Weissman figured out that if you incorporate modified nucleosides into mRNA, you can kill two birds with one stone.”
Weissman told reporters on Monday that many people erroneously think that the mRNA vaccines of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were conceived and developed in less than a year. In fact, he said, the scientific research that made the shots possible date back almost 30 years, and the first clinical trial to test synthetic mRNA took place in the mid-1990s.
“It’s been around a long time,” he said. “This isn’t a new thing.”
And when he learned that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were safe and 95 percent effective in the early results of clinical trials in 2020 — a remarkable showing for any vaccine, let alone one based on novel technology — he wasn’t particularly surprised.
“I was expecting 100 percent,” he said, “but I was accepting 95.”
Material from the Associated Press and prior Globe stories was used in this report.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.