The Roberts Family Professorship in Vaccine Research

Aileen and Brian Roberts

The Aileen and Brian Roberts Foundation created the endowed professorship in 2021 to ensure the continuity of the work of Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, who is the inaugural Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research. The Roberts family also established the Katalin Karikó Fellowship Fund in Vaccine Development in recognition of Katalin Karikó, PhD. Drs. Weissman and Karikó pioneered the mRNA technology that is used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. In their honor, the endowed professorship supports a faculty member in infectious diseases with a focus on vaccine research, and the fellowship supports scientists training in vaccinology at the Penn Institute for Immunology. 

Aileen and Brian Roberts are active philanthropists whose civic leadership has supported organizations in healthcare, education, and the arts. As longtime champions of Penn Medicine, the Roberts family has demonstrated their foresight through generous philanthropic giving, most notably through the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, the first cancer treatment center to fully integrate conventional radiation treatment with the pinpoint accuracy of proton radiation. The Roberts Center has cared for thousands of patients and remains a global leader in proton therapy, earning international acclaim as an authority in research and education.

Weissman headshotCurrent Chairholder
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD

Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, is the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovations. He is best known for his contributions to RNA biology and the COVID-19 vaccines. He and co-collaborator Katalin Karikó, PhD, invented the modified mRNA technology being used in Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna's vaccines to prevent COVID-19.

He received his MD/PhD from Boston University in 1987 and completed his medical Residency at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990. He completed his Fellowship in Immunology at the Lab of Immunoregulation in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease of the National Institutes of Health, serving in the lab of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

His major contributions to the scientific field include the identification of the mechanism by which RNA activates the innate immune system, and that naturally occurring modified nucleosides were the mechanism used by the cell to distinguish foreign RNA from self RNA. Further, Dr. Weissman and his colleagues identified that nucleoside modified mRNA not only did not cause inflammation, but that it was also more stable and efficiently translated than conventional mRNA and went on to develop nucleoside modified mRNA as a delivery system for therapeutic proteins. Building on this work, Dr. Weissman and his colleagues began using nucleoside modified mRNA complexed to lipid nanoparticles to deliver therapeutic mRNA as a vaccine platform, resulting in high titers of neutralizing antibodies against many different pathogens with minimal doses. In addition, Dr. Weissman and his collaborators analyzed the mechanisms that HIV envelope uses to suppress the immune system and proceeded to alter the envelope immunogen to improve responses against it when used in an encoding vaccine.

Dr. Weissman’s work has resulted in the publication of more than 100 papers. He holds many patents, including the ones which detail the modifications required to make mRNA suitable for vaccines and other therapies. In 2022, he was inducted into the National Academy of Medicine.