An undated photograph of Dr. Drew Wiseman has been released on September 9, 2021 by the Medical University of Pennsylvania (Medical School of Pennsylvania/Sharon L. Taft)
Drew Wiseman’s years of research contributed to the creation of RNA vaccines against the Covid virus, which were injected into the arms of millions of people.
But the scientist, who won the 2022 Breakout Award on Thursday with long-time teammate Catalin Carrico, is not content with his laurels. An immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania is already working on a new project: creating a vaccine against all coronaviruses.
“There have been three epidemics or epidemics (of coronavirus) in the past 20 years,” he told AFP.
“We have to assume that there will be others. We told ourselves that we can either wait for the next epidemic or pandemic of coronavirus, and spend a year and a half making a vaccine. Or create a vaccine. Now and make it available. Or even use it now,” explains the researcher.
The 62-year-old and his team embarked on this project last spring. So far, they have published two studies with promising results.
In the midst of a pandemic, many people have learned about 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 strands of genetic instructions, called messenger RNA, in the body, instructs the body to manufacture this protein. Harmless in itself, this “thorn” of the coronavirus is detected by the immune system, which produces antibodies.
The goal now is to train our immune systems to respond to parts of the virus that don’t change as quickly as a sudden spike.
Having worked as a physician most of his life, Drew Wiseman says his dream since he started medical school “was to create something that helps people.” He says he was “so happy” to see the vaccines he laid the groundwork for saved lives.
– Revolutionizing medicine –
While messenger RNA technology gets a lot of attention today, Weissman remembers a time when the 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 Cariko.
An undated photo of Dr. Drew Weissman working in a lab, released September 9, 2021 by Medical School of Pennsylvania / Sharon L. Taft
In 2005, they were able to find a way to modify synthetic RNA to prevent it from causing the massive inflammatory reaction seen in animal experiments.
“Before publishing our study, I said ‘Our phones won’t stop ringing,'” he recalls. “But we’ve waited for our phones for five years…and they never ring!”
Then, they cross a new level, by successfully encasing their precious RNA into ‘lipid nanoparticles’, a coating that prevents them from degrading too quickly and facilitates their entry into cells. Their results were announced in 2015.
Both of these breakthroughs have been used in the anti-Covid vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
If the scientist claims to have seen the problem of inequality in access to vaccines coming, especially in poor countries, he admits that he was surprised by the level of mistrust regarding injections observed in rich countries.
“The conservative anti-science and anti-government people surprised us. I didn’t expect this group to take a stand against vaccines,” he laments.
In addition to vaccines, messenger RNA technology has also been highlighted for its potential to revolutionize medicine at all levels.
An undated photo posted by the family of scientist Catalin Carrico on December 15, 2020.
Now, Dr. Wiseman’s team is working on using RNA to develop a single-injection gene therapy to correct the abnormality that causes sickle cell anemia, an inherited disorder of hemoglobin.
It disproportionately hits people from sub-Saharan Africa.
There are still significant technical challenges to ensuring that the treatment is able to modify genes properly and is safe, but the researchers are optimistic.
ia / cjc / vgr
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