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Three Scientists Who Raced To Develop COVID Vaccine Are Honored With Albany Medical Center Annual Prize

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WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
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Drs. Drew Weissman, Katalin Karikó and Barney Graham light a candle at the conclusion of the awards ceremony at the Hilton Garden Inn on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

Three scientists have been awarded the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research for their groundbreaking contributions to the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccines were both largely created based on medical designs from Drs. Barney Graham, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. The $500,000 Albany Prize has been awarded annually since 2001, except for 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, so this year's recipients received double the money, $1 million.

Karikó, a biochemist, gave tribute to previous awardees as part of Wednesday’s ceremony.

"Without them, we wouldn't be here, because each of them added one important part, which was critical to get the vaccine today, and whether it was about plasmid or whether it was the RNA research they have done."

At the onset of the pandemic, Graham, regarded as a "pioneer in structure-based vaccine design," who had studied viruses since 2017, was working with Moderna at the National Institutes of Health, designing a rapid manufacturing system for vaccines.

Meanwhile at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó and Weissman were tweaking an element of mRNA, the substance that converts DNA into proteins, that would allow it to slip past the human body’s immune system, undetected, allowing mRNA to become a viable delivery system for vaccines and drugs.

Weissman was humbled upon receiving the award.

"This wasn't just Katie and I sitting down and coming up with a new idea. It was based on years and years of work by many other scientists, who identified RNA, who figured out how to deliver it to cells, how it made proteins, how to modulate that, it relied on all of the scientists who develop lipid nanoparticles and other vaccine platforms. I understand the award, and I'm grateful to receive it. But I really think this award goes needs to go to all scientists."

Graham's lab work and the mRNA technolgy were key in rapid development of the COVID vaccines. He says the pandemic may pave the way for better, less expensive, more plentiful vaccines. He vouched for the safety of the COVID vaccines.

"Some people have been worried that the RNA will change your DNA. One of the great features of RNA from someone who's made a lot of DNA vaccines is that the RNA doesn't have to get into the nucleus to work. The RNA only has to get into the cytoplasm, it's there for a few hours, it makes its protein the proteins there for a few days, you make an immune response, and then everything from the vaccine has gone. And so it is probably the most elemental simple way of delivering a protein antigen for vaccination purposes, and it never makes it into the nucleus. It cannot change your DNA. It is something that is very simple and elegant. And so I think we're seeing very safe vaccines come out of this rapid development process."

The three doctors took part in the traditional candle-lighting ceremony honoring the awardees and their predecessors. The Albany Medical Center Prize was established in 2000 by the late Morris “Marty” Silverman, a New York City businessman and philanthropist raised in Troy. A $50 million gift commitment from the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation provides for the prize to be awarded annually for 100 years.

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