A new NFT from the University of Pennsylvania showcases critical mRNA research enabling life-changing vaccines for COVID and beyond
Creativity, collaboration, and the courage to do things differently have long been at the center of the career of Dr. Drew Weissman, the physician and immunologist famous for his groundbreaking contributions to RNA biology. He and his collaborator and co-inventor at the University of Pennsylvania, the RNA biochemist Dr. Katalin Karikó, developed the modified RNA technology that became a foundational component of BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
On 15 July, more than 18 months — and over 500 million doses administered across the country — since these two vaccines were granted US Emergency Use Authorization, Christie’s will present The University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT: Vaccines for a New Era
Designed by Penn and Dr. Weissman, the NFT features a spectacular 3D rendering of the critical technologies that have enabled mRNA vaccines and further inspired research focused on the discovery and development of mRNA therapeutics for some of the world’s most devastating diseases. Funds raised by the sale of the NFT will help advance important research at Penn.
While much of the coverage of the first FDA-approved mRNA vaccines for COVID focused on how quickly they had been developed in response to the pandemic, for Dr. Weissman it was the gratifying result of a career’s worth of research and dedication by him and many other scientists around the world. ‘I laugh because it's a 25-year overnight success,’ says Dr. Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn.
He and Dr. Karikó initially struggled to obtain funding for their critical research. ‘It took over 10 years to get people to recognize the potential of modified mRNA technology for therapeutic and vaccine development. But Kati [Dr. Karikó] and I weren't just sitting in a room hoping; we never gave up. The data looked very promising. The feeling that it would someday work and be a useful technology in creating new therapies kept us going.’
Together, Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman discovered how to modify mRNA to greatly diminish its inherent inflammatory activity. Dr. Weissman's laboratory subsequently developed a delivery technique to package the mRNA in fat droplets called lipid nanoparticles. These advances were instrumental in making mRNA safer, more effective, and more practical for use in vaccines.
In late 2019, nearly fifteen years after Dr. Weissman and Dr. Karikó’s key discovery of how to alter mRNA to diminish the body’s natural inflammatory response, Dr. Weissman began hearing reports from China about the spread of a respiratory disease that had the potential to cause a global pandemic.
When the DNA sequence for the novel coronavirus was released on 10 January 2020, Dr. Weissman and Dr. Karikó’s modified mRNA technology was immediately put to use by vaccine developers. ‘When we saw that it was a coronavirus, we knew it was the spike protein that would be targeted in a vaccine,’ Dr. Weissman says.
The success of the first modified mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, which was initially found to have exceptionally good efficacy in preventing severe disease and death, was a major milestone. Dr. Weissman reflects, ‘As a physician, my career aim has always been to contribute to development of technologies and products that help people. So seeing these extremely positive results of the Phase 3 human trials for modified mRNA vaccines against SAR-CoV-2 was an incredible feeling.’
The NFT includes a dynamic video that demonstrates how mRNA-based COVID vaccines work — how the mRNA vaccine gets inside the body’s cells and how it stimulates an immune response. In a vivid, animated work of digitally native art, we see mRNA encoding the SAR-CoV-2 spike protein encapsulated inside of lipid nanoparticles and administered as a vaccine, providing protection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease. The NFT also includes an explainer, image copies of Penn-owned mRNA patent documents, and an original letter from Dr. Weissman.
‘We’re thrilled to collaborate with the University of Pennsylvania on this incredible project,’ said Peter Klarnet, Senior Specialist, Americana, Books & Manuscripts. ‘This seemed like a great opportunity, not only to see where the NFT market is but how it would react to this sort of content. This particular NFT offers a unique opportunity to own a piece of scientific history — and the sale supports a good cause, which is very much aligned with Christie's core values.’
In the words of Dr. Weissman, ‘Art is really important in communicating scientific ideas to the public. It’s a way to introduce people to the science, how it works, why it's so exciting, and its future potential. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one of many potential future products that may benefit from the modified mRNA technology developed at Penn.’
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Dr. Weissman and his colleagues are currently at work on a wide range of possible future vaccines and therapies, including a pan-coronavirus vaccine to prevent future pandemics, a universal flu vaccine, and vaccines to prevent herpes and malaria, among others. Dr. Weissman also noted the potential for mRNA to be used in vaccines to prevent deadly allergies and gene therapies to treat sickle cell anemia. ‘The variety of potential treatments is enormous.’
The sale of The University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT: Vaccines for a New Era will support ongoing research activities at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine. It runs exclusively online from 15-25 July.