Establishment of the Roberts Family Professorship in Vaccine Research Honoring Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, and the Katalin Karikó Fellowship Fund in Vaccine Development Recognizing Katalin Karikó, PhD

July 14, 2021

To:PSOM Community

From:J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD

I am delighted to announce the establishment of the Roberts Family Professorship in Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Katalin Karikó Fellowship Fund in Vaccine Development.  The endowed chair and fellowship funds were created through the generosity of The Aileen and Brian Roberts Foundation.

Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, who will be the inaugural Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, is Professor in the Department of Medicine and Director of Vaccine Research in the Infectious Diseases Division.  He and Dr. Karikó pioneered the mRNA technology that is being used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The world has seen firsthand the power and promise of this revolutionary platform that is now responsible for saving countless lives and providing light at the end of the tunnel for this pandemic. 

Always looking forward, Dr. Weissman and his team are already working on a new vaccine to target the broader class of coronaviruses — knowing that even after this current pandemic wanes, other coronaviruses worldwide will continue to pose serious threats.  Dr. Weissman also hopes to use the mRNA platform to create vaccines against other widespread and serious diseases, including influenza, genital herpes, HIV, and malaria.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Drs. Weissman and Karikó have received numerous awards in recognition of their fundamental science. Recently they were named among recipients of the prestigious 2021 Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research.  The honor, from the Princess of Asturias Foundation (Fundación Princesa de Asturias), a Spanish non-profit organization, is given to individuals and organizations whose work makes significant contributions to humanity through scientific, technical, cultural, social and humanitarian work.

Dr. Weissman, who earned his MD and PhD at the Boston University School of Medicine, joined the Penn faculty in 1997 as assistant professor.  In 2019, he was inducted into the Association of American Physicians.  Dr. Weissman’s accolades also include the 50th Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Medical Science from Brandeis University, where he earned his BA and MA in biochemistry; the 2021 Advocacy Award from Research!America; and the William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic Immunology from the Cancer Research Institute.

Dr. Karikó, a native of Hungary, is an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine and a senior vice president at BioNTech. The Katalin Karikó Fellowship Fund in Vaccine Development will provide financial support for a fellowship in vaccine research in the Penn Institute for Immunology, with a preference for scientists or physician-scientists who are in the early part of their careers. 

In academic medicine, endowed chairs and fellowships help to sustain scholarship and to advance care in a particular field, which accounts for their significance and prestige.  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, which last year marked its 10th anniversary.  The Roberts Center is a global leader in proton therapy (radiation therapy that targets cancer cells with pinpoint accuracy), which has cared for thousands of patients since its inception and earned international acclaim as an authority in research and education. The Roberts Family has also been a generous supporter of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), creating in 2016 the Roberts Collaborative for Genetics and Individualized Medicine, which has positioned CHOP as a leader in pediatric genetics research. 

With the creation of a new endowed chair and fellowship at Penn Medicine, the Roberts Family is ensuring the continuity of Dr. Weissman’s groundbreaking work and unleashing the potential of young scientists as they forge the next frontier in vaccinology. Their gift will improve the health of people around the world. Please join me in expressing deep appreciation to the Roberts Family for their extraordinary generosity and in congratulating Drs. Weissman and Karikó on these well-deserved honors.