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Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, Philip Felgner, Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Derrick Rossi and Sarah Gilbert

Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research 2021

The year 2020 began with the onset of a pandemic that changed daily life and the world economy and ended with an extraordinary demonstration of the ability of science to deal with the problem, thanks to the first vaccines against the SARS- CoV-2 coronavirus, the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, Philip Felgner, Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Derrick Rossi and Sarah Gilbert have independently contributed to the development of some of the vaccines approved to date, all based on different strategies, but which have protein S as a common target. This protein is present on the surface of the virus and facilitates its attachment to and entry into cells. Philip Felgner is a pioneer in the use of protein microarrays to understand in detail how the immune system responds to different infectious microorganisms and to identify the best antigens for use in vaccines and diagnostic tests. Moreover, in 1985 he discovered and developed lipofection technology, a strategy that consists in introducing genetic material into a liposome so that it can be delivered to and introduced into cells. This technology is present in lipid nanoparticles that serve as delivery vehicles for messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19. On the other hand, Katalin Karikó, a pioneer in the study of the therapeutic possibilities of this molecule, is considered the ‘mother’ of this type of vaccine. Together with immunologist Drew Weissman, she began working on mRNA-based vaccines and saw that this molecule caused strong inflammatory reactions because the immune system detected it as an intruder. Both managed to introduce small changes in the structure of the RNA so that these reactions did not take place. This breakthrough laid the foundation for the use of RNA therapies and its results allowed Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci (BioNTech) and Derrick Rossi (Moderna) to develop the mRNA-based vaccines that have currently been approved against COVID-19 and whose use can be extended to different areas of medicine such as cancer, autoimmune diseases and tissue regeneration. Finally, vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert is another of the researchers who have worked to obtain a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. The vaccine she developed, Oxford/AstraZeneca, is another of those approved by European authorities to date and is based on an adenovirus that is used as a vector to introduce the DNA encoding protein S into cells, thus stimulating the immune response.

Katalin Karikó

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Katalin Karikó was born in Szolnok (Hungary) on 17th January 1955. She graduated with a degree in Biology from the University of Szeged (Hungary) in 1978 and subsequently earned her PhD in Biochemistry from the same university. In 1985, she moved to Temple University (Philadelphia, USA) to serve as a postdoctoral fellow, continuing research work there into the therapeutic possibilities of RNA, as mentioned above. In 2013, she joined BioNTech, where she currently holds the position of Senior Vice President, and in 2015 discovered that coating RNA molecules with lipid particles was a good strategy for their delivery and protection. Her work has given rise to more than 180 articles, several patents, 13 747 citations and an h-index of 74, according to Google Scholar. She was joint recipient of the 2020 Rosenstiel Award (USA), together with Drew Weissman, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Szeged in January 2021.

Drew Weissman

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Drew Weissman was born in Lexington (Massachusetts, USA). He obtained his Bachelor and Master’s degrees from Brandeis University (USA) in 1981, where he majored in biochemistry and enzymology. He received his PhD from Boston University in 1987 and completed his residency at Beth Israel Hospital, Boston. He continued his studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, in 1997, moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he focused his work on the study of RNA and the innate immune system. He is currently a Professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at UPenn, where he carries out research on RNA and its application in the development of vaccines and gene therapy. Weissman is a member of the American Federation for Clinical Research, the Association of American Physicians, and the American Association of Immunologists. His work has resulted in several patents and he was joint recipient of the 2020 Rosenstiel Prize (USA), together with Katalin Karikó.

Philip Felgner

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Philip Felgner was born in Frankenmuth (Michigan, USA) on 7th February 1950. He graduated in Biochemistry from Michigan State University in 1972, received his Master’s degree three years later, and completed his PhD in 1978 at the same university. After postdoctoral work at the University of Virginia, he joined Syntex Research as a staff scientist. It was there that he developed lipofection technology. In 1988, he became Director of Product Development and founder of Vical Incorporated. In addition to the aforementioned contributions, Felgner’s findings led to the development of DNA vaccines, based on introducing the genetic material for encoding viral antigens into the body. He is currently Director of the University of California at Irvine (UCI) Center for Vaccine Research and Development and the Protein Microarray Laboratory and Training Facility, where he has studied the proteome of numerous infectious microorganisms and has begun to manufacture the first microarray of the human proteome. He is the author of more than 200 articles, which have been cited over 38,000 times, and holds 45 patents and an h-index of 74, according to Google Scholar.

Uğur Şahin

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Uğur Şahin was born in Alexandretta (Turkey) on 19th September 1965. He graduated in Medicine from the University of Cologne and, in 1992, earned his PhD from the same university with a thesis on immunotherapy against tumour cells. He worked as a doctor of internal medicine, haematology and oncology, and in 2000 moved to the University Medical Center Mainz (Germany), where he has held various leading positions to date. In 2001, he co-founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which developed a monoclonal antibody against prostate cancer, currently in phase 3 clinical study. Together with his wife, Özlem Türeci, he co-founded BioNTech in 2008 and has served as CEO of the company since then. In 2010, he founded the translational oncology research institute TRON. In addition to working on the COVID-19 vaccine, Şahin has focused on identifying new targets for immunotherapy in cancer in order to develop an anti-tumour mRNA-based vaccine. He is a member of the German Society for Immunology, the American Association for Cancer Research, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. He is the author of more than 600 articles, which have been cited over 26 000 times, holds several patents and has an h-index of 74, according to Google Scholar. He has received the Merit Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (1995), the Georges Köhler Prize from the German Society for Immunology (2005), the GO-Bio from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (2006 and 2010), the Mustafa Prize (2019), the German Cancer Award (2020) and the National German Sustainability Award (2020). In 2021, he was awarded the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Özlem Türeci

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Özlem Türeci was born in Lastrup (Germany) on 6th March 1967. She earned a degree in Medicine from the University of Saarland (Germany), where she also presented her PhD thesis on immunotherapy as cancer treatment. She has served as CEO and Chief Medical Officer at Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which she co-founded with her husband, Uğur Şahin, in 2001. The two founded BioNTech in 2008, where they have contributed to the discovery of cancer antigens and the development of mRNA therapies, as well as other types of immunotherapies. She also led the project aimed at developing an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. She is currently chair of the German Cancer Immunotherapy Association, has authored more than 400 publications, has over 21 000 citations and an h-index of 63, according to Google Scholar. She recently received the National German Sustainability Award and is holder of the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Derrick Rossi

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Derrick Rossi was born in Toronto (Canada) on 5th February 1966. He graduated from the University of Toronto with Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Medical and Molecular Genetics and earned his PhD from the University of Helsinki (Finland) in 2003. He continued his studies as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University from 2003 to 2007 and held different positions at Harvard Medical School and the Stem Cell Institute of the same university until 2018. He has also carried out research at the Institute for Immune Diseases (IDI) and in the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. In 2010, Rossi founded the biotechnology company Moderna to exploit his discovery of the ability to transform and reprogram pluripotent stem cells thanks to mRNA-based technologies. In 2015, he co-founded Intellia Therapeutics, which uses CRISPR gene editing to develop new drugs for treating genetic diseases. In 2016, he co-founded Magenta Therapeutics, focussing on haematopoietic stem cell transplantation for the treatment of autoimmune diseases, blood cancers and genetic diseases. He is the author of around 200 articles, which have been cited over 20 000 times, holds 21 patents and has an h index of 59, according to Scopus. Among other distinctions, he has received the Pathways to Independence Award (PI) from the NIH, and was named a Robertson Investigator by the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Sarah Gilbert

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Sarah Gilbert was born in Kettering (Northamptonshire, UK) in 1962. She graduated in Biological Sciences from the University of East Anglia (England) and did her PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Hull (England). She subsequently worked as a postdoctoral researcher in industry and, in 1994, moved to the University of Oxford to study host-parasite interactions in malaria. She specializes in the development of vaccines against influenza and emerging pathogens. She led the development and testing of the universal flu vaccine, which underwent clinical trials in 2011, as well as heading the group that has worked on the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. She is the author of more than 400 articles, which have been cited over 22 703 times and has an h index of 86, according to Google Scholar. She has recently been awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (UK).

Sarah Gilbert picture © University of Oxford / John Cairns

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