Renowned scientists Katalin Kariko, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis were named winners of the 2022 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science at a press conference held at the Tang Prize Foundation on June 19. In the award citation, the Selection Committee praises them for discovering “the key vaccinology concepts and approaches, leading to the successful development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.”
In his opening remarks, Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation, pointed out that though right now many of us are feeling the impact of illnesses such as infectious diseases and cancer, fortunately, scientists are working hard to curb the spread of viruses and to come up with more effective treatments. It is in a critical moment like this that we can truly appreciate the importance of biopharmaceutical science in the era we live. He also recounted the significant achievements of previous laureates and thanked the Selection Committee and its chair, Dr. Wen-Chang Chang, for their tireless efforts to award outstanding scientists who have improved the well-being of humanity. He hoped that the laureates’ contributions can inspire the younger generation to follow in their footsteps and help us live a healthier and more fulfilling life.
In his introduction of the 2022 laureates, Dr. Fu-Tong Liu, vice president and academician of Academia Sinica, provided an outline of the development of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, explained how these vaccines work, and highlighted the two challenges facing scientists taking part in the development process. On the one hand, foreign mRNA can trigger innate immune response and cause severe inflammation. On the other hand, mRNA is easily degradable, so it is difficult to deliver it to target cells or organs. Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman’s main contribution is demonstrating that mRNAs with modified nucleosides can evade immune surveillance, while Dr. Cullis pioneered the technique of making lipid nanoparticles composed of pH-sensitive, cationic lipids. These nanoparticles can encapsulate mRNAs and release them only after entering target cells. The collaboration between these three scientists paved the way for Pfizer/BioTech and Moderna to create vaccines for COVID-19, arrested the advance of the pandemic, and saved millions of lives. Dr. Liu concluded his presentation by noting that the new platform they developed not only revolutionized vaccinology, but also ushered in a new era of RNA-based therapies. Answering media’s questions, both Dr. Liu and Dr. Mi-Hao Tao, CEO of the Biomedical Translation Research Center at Academia Sinica, mentioned that mRNA technology has a broad range of applications and can even be used to develop personalized cancer vaccines. Speaking of how to overcome the obstacles a scientist may face when undertaking a project, Dr. Chang, Dr. Liu, and Dr. Tao agreed that collaboration is the key to achieving success in science, as demonstrated by the partnership formed between Dr. Kariko, an RNA expert, Dr. Weissman, an immunologist, and Dr. Cullis, a physicist and biochemist specializing in the manufacturing of lipid nanoparticles. Moreover, they all cited how Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weismann persevered in their scientific endeavors for many years before the world started to pay attention to their work to remind especially aspiring scientists of the importance of passion and dedication.
Responding to the news of the award, Dr. Kariko said that she was “very honored and humbled” to be one of the recipients. After knowing that the Tang Prize is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, she wished that the prize would “live forever” and that when future winners looked back at previous winners like her, they would feel proud to receive the same prize, just like how she was filled with a sense of pride when looking at those winning the prize before her. For Dr. Weissman, it was also “a wonderful honor.” Though he and Dr. Kriko have completely opposite personalities, he stressed that they shared “an incredible interest in science and a perseverance to never give up” as well as the desire to learn. These are things that keep driving them to do research. Dr. Cullis said it was remarkable “to be recognized amongst that group of very elite scientists,” adding that it pleased him a lot not only because of the honor he was getting, but also because “it reflects on all the people that I’ve worked with over the years, and the award has really been given for the work of literally hundreds of people that I’ve had the pleasure to work with, over the last 40 years.”
In 2014, the inaugural Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science was presented to Dr. Tasuku Honjo and Dr. James Allison. Respectively, they discovered CTLA-4 and PD-1 as immune inhibitory molecules, which led to major breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy. Their contributions were recognized by the Nobel Prize Committee, which named Dr. Honjo and Dr. Allison the co-recipients of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 2016, the Tang Prize honored Drs. Emmanuelle Charpentier, Jennifer Doudna, and Feng Zhang, for the development of the genome-editing platform, CRISPR/Cas9. This decision underscored the importance of being able to harness CRISPR technology in terms of how it could revolutionize biomedical research and disease treatment. In 2020, Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their trailblazing work on these “genetic scissors.” In 2018, the Tang Prize went to Drs. Tony Hunter, Brian Druker, and John Mendelson. While Dr. Hunter is credited with discovering protein tyrosine phosphorylation and tyrosine kinases as oncogenes, Dr. Druker and Dr. Mendelson were able to capitalize on this discovery and successfully developed tyrosine kinase-targeted cancer drugs that have proven effective against several cancers. In 2020, this prize was awarded to Drs. Charles Dinarello, Marc Feldmann, and Tadamitsu Kishimoto. These three scientists revealed the crucial cytokines, IL-1, TNF, and IL-6, are key inflammatory mediators and contributed to the development of cytokine-targeting biologics to treat inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and ankylosing spondylitis.