2021 Lasker Awards Honor Work in mRNA Vaccines, Neuroscience and More

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The Lasker awards for 2021, announced Friday, were given to scientists whose work was crucial for Covid-19 vaccines, scientists who discovered how to control the firing of neurons with beams of light, and to a researcher whose influential work and leadership changed medical science.

The prizes are named for Mary and Alfred Lasker. Ms. Lasker was an advocate for medical research, and her husband is sometimes referred to as the father of modern advertising. They are among the most prestigious prizes in medicine, and scores of Lasker winners have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize. Recipients in each category share a $250,000 prize. The prizes were not awarded in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Katalin Kariko, a senior vice president at BioNTech, and Dr. Drew Weissman, a professor in vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shared this year’s Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.

In retrospect, their 2005 breakthrough was apparent when Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman proudly published a surprising finding they had made about messenger RNA, also known as mRNA, which provides instructions to cells to make proteins. The scientists noticed that when they added mRNA to cells, the cells instantly destroyed it. But they could prevent that destruction by slightly modifying the mRNA. When they added the altered mRNA to cells, it could briefly prompt cells to make any protein they chose.

But at the time most scientists were uninterested in the technology, which was to become a keystone of mRNA vaccines, because they thought there were better ways to immunize.

Their paper, published in Immunity in 2005 after multiple rejections by other journals, got little attention. The discovery seemed esoteric.

Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko wrote grants to continue their work. Their applications were rejected. Eventually, two biotech companies took notice of the work: Moderna, in the United States, and BioNTech, in Germany. The companies studied the use of mRNA vaccines for flu, cytomegalovirus and other illnesses, but none moved out of clinical trials for years.

Then the coronavirus emerged. The strikingly effective vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use the modification Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman discovered.

The two scientists are now being showered with rewards for their discovery, including the $3 million Breakthrough Prize and the $1 million Albany Prize.

Dr. Kariko said in an interview this week that, for her, the greatest reward is having played a part in developing a vaccine that saved so many lives.

“For me it is enough to know that I contributed, to know that so many people were helped,” she said.

Dr. Weissman stressed in an interview this week that although he and Dr. Kariko are being honored, the work leading up to the mRNA vaccines involved more than just modifying mRNA.

“People should know that this wasn’t just a one-off experiment that we did and the vaccine was made in 10 months,” he said. “We did the modified mRNA and we are getting the honors, but the vaccines are based on 20-plus years of work by Kati and I and work by hundreds if not thousands of other scientists.”

Karl Deisseroth of Stanford, Peter Hegemann, an emeritus professor at Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany, and Dieter Oesterhelt of Humboldt University of Berlin shared the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

A 2007 experiment by Dr. Deisseroth and his students seemed miraculous. They shined a blue light through an optical fiber they’d implanted in a rat’s brain. It was directed at a neuron that controls the movement of whiskers. The whiskers twitched. Dr. Deisseroth could control actions of rats with a narrow beam of light.

But that experiment was built on years of work.

The path began in the late 1960s when Dr. Oesterhelt became intrigued by bacteria that live in salt marshes. The bacteria are encased in a purple membrane that, Dr. Oesterhelt reported in 1971, contains a protein that senses light. In response to light, the protein pumps ions, one by one, into the cell. That was intriguing because when nerves fire, they achieve a similar result by opening a tunnel in their membranes that lets ions in.


Sept. 24, 2021, 1:10 p.m. ET

Another leap forward occurred in 1991 when Dr. Hegemann, studying algae that can sense and swim toward light, reported that the algae use a protein related to the one in Dr. Oesterhelt’s bacteria. In the presence of light, the protein opens a tunnel in the algae’s membrane, allowing ions to enter.

Dr. Deisseroth reasoned that these proteins, by opening ion channels, would convert light into electrical activity. So he began experimenting to see if adding genes for light-sensing proteins to nerve cells might spark their firing. That led to the experiment with rat whiskers, one of the first of a cascade of studies showing nerve-firing could be controlled by light.

Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

    • Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.  
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

Now, using light-sensing proteins that they add to cells, scientists around the world are activating and silencing neurons in animals to study behaviors ranging from hunger and thirst to anxiety and parenting.

Dr. Deisseroth, who is also a psychiatrist, said in an interview this week that his message to the public is that the work “shows the value of pure basic science that is not necessarily guided by an immediate impact.”

There was no way anyone could have known at the start that the studies in algae and bacteria would allow researchers to know what behaviors would be controlled by individual neurons. But the promise is enormous, Dr. Deisseroth said, adding that with that sort of information for psychiatric disorders, some day, “you can design any kind of therapy.”

David Baltimore, now an emeritus professor at Caltech, received the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

Dr. Baltimore burst into the pantheon of molecular biology in 1970 when he made an astonishing discovery. A rule propounded by Francis Crick and known as the Central Dogma, was wrong. It stated that information in cells went in one direction only -— DNA directed the formation of RNA that directed the formation of proteins. But, Dr. Baltimore found the information flow could also go from RNA to DNA.

In 1975, at just 37 years old, Dr. Baltimore shared a Nobel Prize for the work.

That was just the start of his career, which led to major discoveries in cancer and immunology and the holding of scientific leadership positions. Dr. Baltimore was the founding director of MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, president of Rockefeller University and president of Caltech.

During the AIDS crisis, Dr. Baltimore was co-chair of an influential committee of the National Academy of Sciences that helped galvanize research and a public health campaign.

His greatest satisfaction, he said in an interview this week, has been his work in basic science, both the discoveries and their effects on medicine and society.

“By focusing on basic science I have been able to have an impact on cancer, on AIDS, on immunology. And that is extremely rewarding,” Dr. Baltimore said. “It proves the adage that basic science is the seed corn of societal impact.”