Announcing the Establishment of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation

December 15, 2021

To:Penn Medicine Faculty and Staff

From:J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD
Executive Vice President, University of Pennsylvania for the Health System
Dean, Perelman School of Medicine

Jon Epstein, MD
Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer

Penn Medicine has a vision to help shape the future of medicine. We aspire to catalyze bold research efforts that can translate basic science research advances into new diagnostics and therapeutics. The globally celebrated discoveries by Drs. Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, which formed the foundation of the two mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, magnificently exemplify this strategy and open a new vista for future research.

This week marks a year since those vaccines first became available in the United States. With every individual vaccinated across the globe, our pride grows, as does our belief that this is only the beginning of a whole new era in science and medicine that Penn is at the ready to define. Today, we are delighted to announce creation of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation, which will cement our position at the forefront of translational research to develop novel vaccines and therapeutics for a wide range of illnesses.

Under the direction of Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the new Institute will embrace collaborative, interdisciplinary research, leveraging new technologies to accelerate breakthrough translational discoveries and therapeutic development while simultaneously advancing our understanding of the basic science of RNA and its many functions. Areas of focus will include development of vaccines against infectious diseases, such as HIV, malaria and influenza, as well as other serious illnesses, including cancer, food and environmental allergies, and autoimmune diseases. At the same time, the Institute will support novel approaches to treatments, including the production of monoclonal antibodies and therapeutic proteins using RNA technology to target specific cells and organs. Work is currently underway to deliver gene editing and repair machinery to stem cells and CARs to T cells using RNA delivery. With these approaches in our sights, our team envisions a future with the potential to modify disease progression and potentially cure genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and other devastating congenital disorders.

The new Institute is designed to harness the power of interdisciplinary collaborations, both within the Perelman School of Medicine and across the University and with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Wistar Institute, and other academic institutions throughout the world. We are committed to recruiting even more scientists to join our mission to become the world’s leading engine to realize the power of mRNA biology.

Dr. Weissman is the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research in the Department of Medicine and Director of Vaccine Research in the Infectious Diseases Division. He and Dr. Karikó pioneered the mRNA technology underpinning the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, for which they received the 2021 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award among many other prestigious awards.

As director of the new Institute, Dr. Weissman is uniquely positioned to lead what is sure to be an ambitious agenda to support next-generation treatments and cures from within “the cradle of basic research,” as Dr. Tony Fauci noted in a retrospective piece on the impact of his mRNA work. Please join us in congratulating Dr. Weissman and supporting him in this vital new role.