TANG PRIZE/Tang Prize honors scientists who paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines

06/19/2022 11:31 AM
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CNA photo June 19, 2022
CNA photo June 19, 2022

Taipei, June 19 (CNA) Three scientists whose research laid the foundation for messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccines were named the winners of the 2022 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, at a ceremony in Taipei on Sunday.

Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis were recognized "for the discovery of key vaccinology concepts and approaches, leading to the successful development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines," according to the Tang Prize Foundation.

The technologies developed by the three laureates "not only revolutionized vaccinology but also signaled a paradigm shift in protein therapy. They represent the advent of a new era of RNA-based therapies," the foundation said.

Karikó and Weissman, who have worked together for over two decades, created a modified version of mRNA that would not cause an inflammatory response when injected into the body. The technology is used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Cullis is a pioneer in delivery systems for mRNA to human cells, based on lipid nanoparticles (LNP), which are bubbles of fat that wrap around and protect mRNA.

In a recorded video, Karikó said that she was very honored and humbled to learn that she had received the award with Weissman and Cullis.

She hoped that future laureates would look back at them and be similarly proud to receive the award, as she was when she learned who the past laureates were.

Weissman said the prize was a "wonderful honor," adding that a shared interest in science, a hunger for learning, and perseverance formed the foundation of his partnership with Karikó. This drove them to do research despite their vastly different personalities, he said.

Cullis said he felt it was remarkable to be included among the "elite scientists" that have been awarded the Tang Prize in the past.

He also credited the award to his collaborators and colleagues. "The award is really being given for the work of literally hundreds of people that I've had the pleasure to work with over the last 40 years, so it's really fantastic," he said.

Karikó is an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior vice president at BioNTech. She was born in Hungary and relocated to the U.S. after obtaining a doctorate degree in biochemistry.

Weissman, an American researcher, is currently the director of vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

Karikó and Weissman have received many awards, including the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and were named among Time Magazine's Heroes of the Year in 2021.

Cullis is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia. The Canadian researcher has co-founded several companies, including Integrated Nano Therapeutics, Molecular You Corp., and Acuitus Therapeutics.

The Tang Prize is a biennial award established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group, to honor people who have made prominent contributions in four categories -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and rule of law.

The winners in each category share a cash award of NT$40 million (US$1.34 million) and NT$10 million in research funding.

The first winners of the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science were James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo in 2014 for their work on immune inhibitory molecules. They went on to win a Nobel Prize in 2018.

In 2016, the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, and Feng Zhang for the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing platform.

Anthony R. Hunter, Brian J. Druker, John Mendelsohn won the 2018 prize for their discoveries of two oncogenes, which led to successful targeted cancer therapies.

The 2020 winners were Charles Dinarello, Marc Feldmann, and Tadamitsu Kishimoto, for the development of cytokine-targeting biological therapies for the treatment of inflammatory diseases.

(By Chiang Yi-ching)

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