THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA MRNA NFT - VACCINES FOR A NEW ERA. An NFT, issued in a single edition only, memorializing the pioneering work of Drs. Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó and its impact on mRNA vaccines against the COVID-19 virus. The NFT includes a three-dimensional video illustrating the mechanics of this mRNA vaccine technology at the microscopic level which is complemented with a copy of original patent documents, and a letter from Dr. Drew Weissman. The NFT also includes an additional version of the video bearing captions describing the action on-screen as well as a storyboard “explainer” allowing the viewer to better understand the mechanics of how mRNA works to stimulate the immune system to defend against COVID-19.
The story begins beside a simple photocopier in 1998 at the University of Pennsylvania. Drs. Weissman and Karikó were both attempting to copy lengthy research papers and in the course of negotiating who could use the machine ﬁrst, they began discussing their own research. Dr. Weissman had been investigating the use of DNA to produce an HIV vaccine. Dr. Karikó argued for RNA as an alternative. Intrigued, Dr. Weissman asked her to collaborate with his team. The partnership proved to be an excellent ﬁt: Dr. Weissman was an experienced immunologist while Dr. Karikó had worked extensively with RNA.
The collaboration proved extremely fruitful. Dr. Weissman recalled, “We shared knowledge. We shared papers. We taught each other everything. But by doing that, it allowed us to ﬁgure out how to make modiﬁed mRNA and how it could help make a vaccine. But for my chance meeting and subsequent collaboration with Dr. Karikó, we would not have made this discovery of modiﬁed mRNA because we needed both elements, both types of science involved.” A longstanding hurdle to introducing unmodified mRNA into a living organism was inﬂammation, which could prove deadly—a hurdle largely overcome by mRNA modifications discovered by Drs. Weissman and Karikó. They also found that encasing the modiﬁed mRNA in lipid (fat) droplets prevented the immune system from immediately attacking it as a foreign invader, allowing the modiﬁed mRNA to work in concert with the immune system to ﬁght disease.
Although they published their landmark research paper on their discoveries in 2005, the medical research community initially paid little attention to this important breakthrough. It was not until more than a decade later that mRNA technology was found to be one of the most eﬀective means of developing vaccines quickly and eﬀectively. As soon as the genome for COVID-19 had been sequenced and released, vaccine developers around the world, including Dr. Weissman and his team and collaborators, were able to begin researching a potential mRNA vaccine and within weeks, they were conducting their ﬁrst mRNA vaccine tests in animals. Today, over a billion mRNA-based vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.
The foundational modiﬁed mRNA technology developed by Drs. Weissman and Karikó is not limited to vaccines protecting against COVID-19. As Dr. Weissman notes in his letter attached to the NFT: “I think mRNA has huge potential opportunities for treating and preventing many diﬀerent diseases. My team and I are currently at work on a pan-coronavirus vaccine to stop the next coronavirus epidemic, a universal ﬂu vaccine, and vaccines to prevent herpes and malaria. We are also working with colleagues to develop cancer therapeutics with mRNA technology. My laboratory also supports the development of mRNA vaccines and production facilities with other countries to help nations with fewer ﬁnancial resources than the United States gain improved access to this lifesaving technology. We are also using mRNA technology as a new potential treatment for certain genetic disorders, including sickle cell anemia, with a single injection of mRNA- LNPs targeted to bone marrow stem cells to allow the mRNA to express gene editing enzymes that can correct this genetic disorder. I believe mRNA technology can be further developed for much broader use in the future to treat numerous other genetic diseases as well as many acute and chronic diseases.”
Funds raised by the sale of the NFT will be used to advance important research across the university.
“The stunning speed with which the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were developed and their global success in ﬁghting the pandemic has led to an explosion of interest in how modiﬁed mRNA technology can be applied across many ﬁelds of medicine,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine. “Dr. Weissman and his colleagues across Penn are continuing to chart new paths of discovery with the potential for global impact. This digital asset celebrates their historic scientiﬁc achievements and points to a bright future in vaccine research and development.” The development of the NFT celebrating mRNA discoveries was led by the Wharton School’s Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance, which includes a Blockchain Laboratory, in collaboration with Penn Medicine and the Penn Center for Innovation, the university’s hub for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship.