Brandeis at 75

'Trying to Understand the Unknown'

By Drew Weissman ’81, GSAS MA’81, P’15, H’23

Part of Exceptional Results

In 2021, Time magazine hailed Drew Weissman ’81, GSAS MA’81, P’15, H’23, as one of its Heroes of the Year for his research leading to the development of COVID-19 vaccines that have saved millions of lives.

Decades earlier, as a Brandeis undergraduate, he earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in four years by working long hours in the lab of biochemist Gerald Fasman.

“I would bring Fasman results, and he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’” Weissman recalls. “He would say, ‘Well, let’s look and see what these results mean. What can we deduce from them? What kind of hypotheses can we build from these results?’

“What Brandeis did is get me interested in basic science research,” Weissman continues. “I developed a passion for trying to understand the unknown.”

Now the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Weissman shared the Time honor with his longtime collaborator, Katalin Karikó, H’23. The two met at UPenn in 1997 and began collaborating on using messenger RNA — the molecule that transports instructions from DNA to the ribosomes in our cells, directing them to produce proteins — as the basis for therapeutics and vaccines.

In 2021, they received the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, often a precursor to a Nobel Prize.

Yet when Weissman and Karikó started researching mRNA, many scientists doubted it could be used in a vaccine. The skepticism wasn’t without justification. When mRNA was injected into mice, it caused deadly inflammation.

But by the mid-2000s, Weissman and Karikó had figured out a way to modify mRNA so it didn’t cause inflammation. Several years later, Weissman’s lab devised a method of packaging mRNA inside a lipid nanoparticle — a small bubble of oil — so the molecule didn’t fall apart as it traveled through the body. “We basically tested every possible delivery system and found this was the best,” Weissman says.

By the 2010s, Weissman’s lab had shown that mRNA was effective as a delivery vehicle for immunizing mice against genital herpes, influenza, Zika, and HIV.

Weissman’s basic-science research will undoubtedly continue to transform medicine. “We’re working,” he recently told Penn Medicine News, “on every imaginable infectious disease.”