- Faculty in the News
Faculty in the News
E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, spoke about the new mask guidelines from the CDC. He notes we still have to be vigilant: “This is where we are today. As we see how things evolve under these new guidelines, we may be able to go further, or we may have to actually dial it back a little bit.”
Calling them “true heroes of science,” NBC Nightly News profiled Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, and Katalin Kariko, PhD, an adjunct associate professor. The two told the story of their partnership and the groundbreaking 2005 study that set the stage for a successful COVID-19 mRNA vaccine.
Chills, headache, and fatigue after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine are perfectly normal. But reactions can vary wildly, and they don’t reflect how your immune system would respond to a COVID-19 infection. E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, spoke with National Geographic about why reactions to vaccines differ and the difference between side effects and adverse events.
After a year of hardly any seasonal flu cases, doctors are urging action ahead of what may be a dangerous season. NBC Nightly News interviewed Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology, who explained why more children may be susceptible this year, and how a flu shot will be a good defense against serious illness.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases whose foundational research with colleague Katalin Kariko, PhD, on mRNA led to Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, spoke to The Telegraph about his strategy to tackle the future of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses. His lab is developing a vaccine to prevent various coronaviruses at once, and this vaccine would eliminate a need for vaccines to be altered to cover coronavirus mutations.
A recent study led by E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, found that people who were never infected with COVID-19 did not have a full immune response until after receiving the second dose. Wherry explained the study findings, noting that it’s very important that people who have never had COVID-19 get both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, to get optimal high levels of antibodies. The Penn study did not show any evidence that a second dose could cause harm among those who have previously had COVID-19.
Recent research from the Penn Institute of Immunology suggests vaccine side effects such as a sore arm, fever, or muscle aches could be a sign of a positive immune response and should not be a cause for concern. E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, noted that side effects “are not necessarily a bad thing — they may actually be an indicator of an even better immune response.”
A story in Philadelphia magazine’s “Top Doctors” issue on the latest developments in gene therapy featured David Porter, MD, the Jodi Fisher Horowitz Professor in Leukemia Care Excellence and director of Cell Therapy and Transplantation, Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, and Katalin Kariko, PhD, an adjunct associate professor who is now a senior vice president at BioNTech. A leukemia patient of Porter’s who underwent CAR T cell therapy was also featured.
Ensuring access to COVID-19 vaccines remains critical for people in middle-to-low-income countries. Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, explained his work with the Thai government to establish mRNA vaccine facilities dedicated to manufacturing vaccines for the people of Thailand and surrounding middle-to-low-income countries. Positioning facilities around the world is a way to provide much-needed COVID-19 vaccines and stop further spread of the virus, Weissman said.
Sara Cherry, PhD, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was a guest on the Pint-Sized Science podcast to discuss what viruses are, how they infiltrate our bodies, and how her lab is working on finding new drug candidates to battle SARS-CoV-2.
E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, joined NBC10 to debunk three COVID-19 conspiracy theories that have some citizens hesitant about getting a coronavirus vaccine dose. For example, some falsely believe the mRNA vaccines could alter your genome or track you. “Just about every time you eat a meal, you’re ingesting RNA. This is not something that is really that unusual,” Wherry said.
6ABC interviewed Frederic Bushman, PhD, chair of Microbiology and co-director of the Penn Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens, for his expert take on the current status of COVID-19 variants, and his team’s work to sequence them and post their results to a new, accessible web page. “It’s worrisome that we are seeing variants appear in greater frequency. The B.1.1.7, U.K. derived variant, New York-derived variant, Brazil-derived variant are all increasing in proportion of the total,” Bushman said.
A recent study suggests that there is a strong boost to the immunity of everyone who receives the first dose of an mRNA vaccine, including those who have previously had a SARS-CoV-2 infection. However, only people who have never had a SARS-CoV-2 infection appeared to benefit from the second dose. The research team, led by E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, tracked not only antibody responses to vaccination but also the creation of memory B cells, which provide longer lasting immunity against infection.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases and an mRNA researcher, was honored by “Face the Nation” on CBS News for his groundbreaking work with colleague Katalin Kariko, PhD, an adjunct associate professor, that paved the way for COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. The pair's research and “life’s work” were presented as part of the “winding chain of effort...which has led to 146 million Americans being vaccinated” against COVID-19, the show said.
Richard Doty, PhD, director of Penn’s Smell and Taste Center, was quoted in a story about smell therapy to regain loss, such as sniffing spices. The tactics, however, aren’t supported with enough research. While smell training “has caught the imagination of laypeople as well as scientists,” he said, the evidence is “pretty weak that it has any effect.”
While side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine show your immune system is responding to the vaccine in a way that will protect against disease, evidence from clinical trials showed that people with few or no symptoms were also protected. However, there is some evidence of stronger immune response in those who get sick when vaccinated. A study led by E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, showed that people who reported side effects may have had somewhat higher levels of antibodies.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, joined a virtual panel of Philadelphia scientists to speak about the ways they individually are working to protect our community and the world from COVID-19. Weissman, whose groundbreaking research paved the way for Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, explained that while COVID-19 is new, the technology behind the vaccines has been studied for decades.
The authorized COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be safe and effective in clinical trials and in real-world conditions, and there is no evidence showing that vaccinating those with previous SARS-CoV-2 could be unsafe. On the contrary, growing evidence shows one dose of the vaccine benefits individuals who’ve recovered from the infection, boosting their immune response. “Our study and several other studies show that there is a benefit, immunologically … in people who were previously infected,” said E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology.
The characteristics of mRNA vaccines make them ideal tools to prevent various other infectious maladies. Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases whose discoveries paved the way for mRNA vaccines, spoke to the Hindustan Times about the cost of storing mRNA vaccines, the scientific community’s interest in investing in mRNA technology, and how we’ll likely see mRNA vaccines being used to prevent disease.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution scores social activities by the risk to those who have already been vaccinated. Meenakshi Bewtra, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of Epidemiology and Gastroenterology, weighed in, but urged caution as more COVID-19 variants are easier to transmit.
A grant from the the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society will help fund the macrophage CAR T cell therapy work being conducted in collaboration with Carisma Therapeutics, a cell therapy company co-founded by Saar Gill, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of Hematology-Oncology.
After COVID-19, we may think the flu is not a big problem, but it could be this coming flu season, according to Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology. “We are just as susceptible to a flu pandemic strain today as we were a year ago,” he said, explaining that Penn’s role as a newly chosen Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response will be to study flu risk, pandemic plans, and the evolution of influenza.
E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, joined Good Day Philadelphia to discuss the latest developments with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, the importance of getting a second dose if you received an mRNA vaccine, and a recent COVID-19 outbreak at a Montgomery County School.
In the early months of the pandemic, blood donation centers around the country rushed to collect convalescent plasma as it was seen as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Now, many are moving away from plasma collection, and even doing away with antibody testing to find volunteers who want to donate. David C. Fajgenbaum, MD, MBA, MSc, an assistant professor of Translational Medicine & Human Genetics and director of the Center for Cytokine Storm Treatment & Laboratory, is leading a project that seeks to review how every drug tried against COVID has performed. After analyzing nine randomized clinical trials, his research team graded convalescent plasma a “D.”
Keeping mRNA COVID-19 vaccines cold remains an obstacle for scientists looking to provide vaccine access to people in remote areas. Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, spoke about the possibility of freeze drying vaccines in order to keep them from expiring and other ways vaccines can be developed to last longer or require less-complicated storage.
The New York Times spoke to Michal Elovitz, MD, director of the Maternal and Child Health Research Center in Obstetrics and Gynecology, about new preliminary research suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccine does not negatively affect pregnant individuals. Elovitz, who was not part of the research team, said, “It is very reassuring that there were no reported acute events in pregnant individuals (over the course of the study).”
Bustle examined how long the COVID-19 vaccines might last. Pfizer’s vaccine shows strong antibodies for at least six months, while an ongoing study of Moderna’s vaccine shows that antibodies persist for at least six months after the second dose. “We only have six months of data,” Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology, told the Wall Street Journal in April 2021. “Six months from now it’s likely we’ll learn we have one year of protection.”
Research led by Andrea Facciabene, PhD, a research associate professor of Radiation Oncology and Obstetrics/Gynecology, suggested certain gut bacteria can reduce the efficacy of radiation therapy against cancers, but targeting those bacteria with the drug vancomycin can reverse this effect. Facciabene presented the findings at the AACR Virtual Special Conference: Radiation Science and Medicine.
Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, received the $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross Award for his groundbreaking work in developing CAR T cell therapy. Two months ago, June was also named a 2021 Dan David Prize Laureate. “I am honored and humbled to receive these prizes on behalf of my team at Penn,” he said.
A team of Penn Medicine researchers identified nine potential new COVID-19 treatments, including three that are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating other diseases. Sara Cherry, PhD, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was interviewed on KCBS Radio (San Francisco) about the three drugs, which could be rapidly tested in human volunteers and COVID-19 patients: the transplant-rejection drug cyclosporine, the cancer drug dacomitinib, and the antibiotic salinomycin.
World-renowned cancer cell therapy pioneer Carl June, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, received the $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross Award for his groundbreaking work in developing chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy.
Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases and one of the scientists behind mRNA vaccine technology used by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna for their COVID-19 vaccines, explained to PBS Newshour that a benefit of mRNA vaccines is a plug-and-play quality. The vaccines can be easily adapted to protect against other viruses.
Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology, will serve as program director of Penn’s Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response (CEIRR), funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Penn Medicine will be one of five sites across the country to operate a CEIRR, with the goal of better understanding influenza viruses around the world, along with learning about the viral strains that have the potential to cause pandemics. Penn Medicine has been awarded nearly $7 million in first-year funding, and the contract is expected to be supported for six additional years.
Not having side effects, or having not as severe side effects, is no reason to worry when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, told Scientific American. While researchers do not fully understand why only some people have side effects from COVID-19 vaccines, the experience probably reflects the quirks of each person’s immune system more than it does the vaccine’s effectiveness, Wherry said.
Wherry was also quoted in articles in The Atlanticabout how the immune systems of immunocompromised or immunosuppressed people—and people with long COVID—respond to vaccines. A recent study by Wherry and colleagues that suggests people who had COVID-19 may only need one vaccine dose gained widespread local coverage, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Fox 29.
Analysis Finds Viral Variants of Concern in Over a Third of Latest COVID-19 Samples from Philadelphia-area Patients
In an analysis of samples from COVID-19-positive patients taken in late February and early March, Frederic Bushman, PhD, chair of Microbiology, and his colleagues found that more than a third of these recent Philadelphia area cases were caused by concerning variants of COVID-19. “We know that mask use, social distancing, hand washing, and other simple interventions work against all variants of SARS-CoV-2, so we must keep up these measures,” Bushman said. “The less the virus spreads, the less opportunity it will have to mutate and develop variants with increased infectivity.”
Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Awards $1 Million to Penn COVID-19 Repurposed Drug Registry
David C. Fajgenbaum, MD, MBA, MSc, an assistant professor of Translational Medicine & Human Genetics and director of the Center for Cytokine Storm Treatment & Laboratory, was awarded $1 million by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy to expand the scope of the COvid19 Registry of Off-label & New Agents (CORONA) project and build out his team to accelerate treatment identification for COVID-19.
César de la Fuente, PhD, a Presidential Assistant Professor in Psychiatry, Microbiology, and Bioengineering, believes biosensor technology could make COVID-19 screening practical. De la Fuente’s lab developed a biosensor that captures the chemical information generated when the coronavirus’ spike protein binds to its natural receptors in human cells. The diagnostic enables high-frequency testing, which de la Fuente said is the key to preventing the spread of infection.
Amit Bar-Or, MD, FRCP, director of the Center for Neuroinflammation and Neurotherapeutics, offered insight on new guidance from the National MS Society on the COVID-19 vaccine for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). “For the three approved vaccines in the United States, there are no safety issues unique for people with MS,” he said.
Rigorous testing and clinical trials have shown that the vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing COVID-19 and will likely fend off serious illness or hospitalization even if you do get sick. What’s still unclear is just how long that protection will last. E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute for Immunology, spoke about vaccine immunity. He noted that since people who’ve been vaccinated mount an even better immune response, he thinks immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines could last several years, if not longer.