Each year at the National Inventors Hall of Fame®, we have the honor of inducting some of the world’s most impactful inventors. Since 1973, in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, we have recognized more than 600 visionary U.S. patent holders.
Among this year’s inspiring class are innovators who have advanced our health and improved our society, including immunologist Drew Weissman and biochemist Katalin Karikó, whose collaborative work paved the way for the mRNA vaccines developed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on to learn more about Weissman’s world-changing work.
Born in 1959, Weissman grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. He has said he was always curious, and always interested in figuring out how things worked. Though he spent much of his early years participating in sports and martial arts, he was particularly drawn to exploring science.
“When I was in sixth grade, [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] came to my elementary school and brought their brand-new computer system, which was one of the first languages that had been developed for computers, and we learned how to write programs,” Weissman said in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “They had a big clunky robot that we would steer around the room. That was a great experience.”
Weissman grew his STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills in high school, not only by taking advanced courses in biology, chemistry and physics, but also by working for a company, founded by his father, that manufactured optical mirrors for satellites.
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry/enzymology from Brandeis University, he earned his doctorate in immunology/microbiology and his medical degree from Boston University. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston in 1990.
Contributing to the Greater Good
In 1997, after completing a fellowship at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, Weissman came to the University of Pennsylvania. It was here that he and Karikó began collaborating on their research into RNA and mRNA, the genetic material in the human body that instructs cells to make proteins.
“The only way we figure anything out, we learn, we develop, is through collaboration,” Weissman said. “There's almost no scientist in the world who does everything themselves and doesn't work with other people with other types of expertise. Just about every scientist collaborates in order to accomplish things.”
While unmodified mRNA molecules are unable to make it past the body’s immune system, in the early 2000s, Weissman and Karikó modified mRNA so it could avoid immediate immune detection, stay active longer and efficiently instruct cells to create antigens that protect the body against severe disease. They accomplished this by exchanging one of the four building blocks of mRNA molecules, uridine, with pseudouridine, laying the foundation for modified mRNA to be used in a range of future vaccines and treatments.
“With RNA, there were so many potential uses for it, so many therapeutics, vaccines, new drug therapies, gene therapies, the list just went on and on,” Weissman said.
In the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, modified, synthetic mRNA is delivered into the body and instructs cells to make copies of the virus’ spike protein. Later, the body’s immune system can recognize the real virus upon exposure and ensure rapid immune response to protect against severe disease. Since December 2020, several billion mRNA vaccine doses have been administered worldwide to combat COVID-19.
In his current work, Weissman remains passionate about “being sure that new inventions, new ideas, new developments are accessible to the entire world, not just the very richest countries.”
Meet More Inspiring 2023 Inductees
To learn more about the visionary creators and innovators who make up our latest class of Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.