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2021 Dr. Paul Janssen Award Winners Katalin Karikó, Ph.D., and Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D. alt
Katalin Karikó, Ph.D., and Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D.
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Latest News

Two Pioneering RNA Scientists Win the 2021 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research

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Learn how their revolutionary work has not only had a crucial impact on the COVID-19 pandemic but is also paving the way for potential future vaccines and treatments.
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The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines around the world in 2021 was a key turning point in a pandemic that had begun more than a year prior. And the groundbreaking joint research of Katalin Karikó, Ph.D., and Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D., played a major role in reaching that milestone.

It's for their foundational work that enabled the use of messenger RNA (mRNA) in vaccine development that they're receiving the 2021 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, which was established in 2004 to honor the innovative namesake of what is now called the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.

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It is a great honor to recognize the work of researchers like Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman. They persevered in the face of so many obstacles along their science journey, and today their work is helping save millions of lives all over the world.

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The Power of Partnership and Persistence


Dr. Karikó has focused on studying mRNA—a molecule that carries a code that allows a cell's machinery to create a specific protein—for her entire career.

But it was a chance meeting with Dr. Weissman over a photocopier at the University of Pennsylvania, where he's the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine, that set the dynamic duo on their current path of study. Ultimately, their joint discovery of a way to deploy mRNA safely in the creation of vaccines and therapeutics not only changed the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic but also holds the potential to help prevent and treat other serious diseases down the road.

"mRNA has an enormous amount of potential future benefits, including many vaccines for difficult diseases like HIV, influenza, malaria, TB and many others," says Dr. Weissman. "Receiving this award is a wonderful acknowledgment of the work resulting from my many years of working with Dr. Karikó, but the most important thing is the benefit the work has given to people."

Adds Dr. Karikó: “While I am accepting the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, I reflect on my humble beginning, the support of my family, teachers, mentors and colleagues who helped me on my journey. I think about all those hardworking fellow scientists who are so passionate about their work and immensely contributed to the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine.”

Joining a Constellation of Scientific Stars


Each year, the Dr. Paul Janssen Award is given to an active scientist—or scientists—in academia, industry or a scientific institute who has made a significant, transformational contribution toward the improvement of public health.

The awardees share a $200,000 cash prize to further their work and each receive a sculpture with the inscription of "What's New?"—the question Dr. Paul, as he was affectionately known, asked daily in his research and development lab to inspire and encourage his colleagues to seek new compounds that might one day lead to new medicines for patients.

Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman were selected by an independent committee of world-renowned researchers and are the latest additions to a group of 19 past winners that includes five Nobel Prize recipients—most recently, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., and Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., who were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their revolutionary discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology and received the Dr. Paul Janssen Award in 2014.

“It is a great honor to recognize the work of researchers like Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman,” says Paul Stoffels, M.D. Paul Stoffels, M.D., Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer, Johnson & Johnson, Chief Scientific Officer, Johnson & Johnson. “They persevered in the face of so many obstacles along their science journey, and today their work is helping save millions of lives all over the world.”

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See Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman receive their awards and hear from other COVID-19 vaccine scientists on our webcast, Eureka Moments: Vaccine Science Superheroes.

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