Now, the plan of an immunologist is to create a vaccine against all coronaviruses. According to him, we have the choice between waiting for the next outbreak or spending a year and a half creating a serum.
Drew Weissman’s years of research contributed to the creation of the anti-Covid messenger RNA vaccines, injected into the arms of millions of people. But the scientist, who won the 2022 Breakthrough Prize on Thursday with his long-time colleague Katalin Kariko, is not resting on his laurels.
The University of Pennsylvania immunologist is already working on a new project: to create a vaccine against all coronaviruses.
“There have been three pandemics or epidemics (of coronavirus) in the past 20 years,” he explains to AFP. “We have to assume that there will be others. We thought we could either wait for the next coronavirus epidemic or pandemic, and spend a year and a half creating a vaccine. Either create one now and have it available or even use it now, ”explains the researcher.
The 62-year-old man and his team embarked on this project last spring. They have so far published two studies with promising results.
In the midst of a pandemic, many people have been familiarized with the principle of messenger RNA vaccines: they focus on a small part of the virus – in the case of SARS-CoV-2, the so-called “Spike” protein – and aim to inject into the body of strands of genetic instructions, called messenger RNA, instructing the body to make this protein.
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Harmless in itself, this “spicule” of the coronavirus is then detected by the immune system which will produce antibodies. The goal now is to train our immune systems to respond to parts of the virus that do not mutate as quickly as the spike.
Having practiced as a doctor most of his life, Drew Weissman says his dream, since he started medical school, “has been to create something that helps people”. He says he was “deeply happy” to see that the vaccines for which he laid the groundwork saved lives.
While messenger RNA technology enjoys considerable attention today, Drew Weissman recalls a time when this field was a scientific wasteland. “We started working together in 1998, without much funding or entry into the world of scientific journals,” he says of his collaboration with Katalin Kariko.
In 2005, they managed to find a way to modify synthetic RNA to prevent it from causing a massive inflammatory reaction seen in animal experiments. “Right before our study was published, I said, ‘Our phones are not going to stop ringing,’ he recalls. “But we waited by our phones for five years… and they never rang!”
Then, they cross a new level, by succeeding in placing their precious RNA in “lipid nanoparticles”, a coating which prevents them from degrading too quickly and facilitates their entry into the cells. Their results were made public in 2015. Both of these breakthroughs were used in anti-Covid vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
If the scientist claims to have seen the problem of unequal access to vaccines coming, especially in poor countries, he admits to having been surprised by the level of mistrust with regard to injections observed in rich countries. “The anti-science and anti-government conservatives took us completely by surprise. I just didn’t expect this group to take a stand against vaccines, ”he regrets.
Beyond vaccines, messenger RNA technology is also highlighted for its potential to revolutionize medicine at all levels. Now, Dr. Weissman’s team is working on using RNA to develop single-injection gene therapy to correct the anomaly that causes sickle cell anemia, a genetic disorder of hemoglobin.
It disproportionately hits people from sub-Saharan Africa. Significant technical challenges remain to ensure that the treatment is able to properly modify genes and is safe, but the researchers are hopeful.