COVID advances win US$3-million Breakthrough prizes
Techniques that have armed scientists in the battle against COVID-19 have scooped two out of five US$3-million Breakthrough prizes — the most lucrative awards in science and mathematics. One award went to the biochemists who discovered how to smuggle genetic material called messenger RNA into cells, leading to the development of a new class of vaccine. Another was scooped by the chemists who developed the next-generation sequencing technique that has been used to rapidly track variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The prize were announced on 9 September.
“These two awards are for research that has had such an impact on the world that they elevate the stature of the Breakthrough Prize,” says Yamuna Krishnan, a chemical biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “They have been saving lives by the millions.”
Vaccines developed by the Pfizer–BioNTech collaboration and Moderna, which have this year been administered worldwide, deliver mRNA that instructs cells to create SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, which, in turn, stimulates the body to make antibodies. But for decades, mRNA vaccines were considered unfeasible because injecting mRNA triggered an unwanted immune response that immediately broke down the mRNA. The award’s winners — Katalin Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia and at BioNTech in Mainz, Germany, and Drew Weissman, also at UPenn — demonstrated in the mid-2000s that swapping one type of molecule in mRNA, called uridine, with a similar one called pseudouridine by-passes this immune reaction1.