LONDON: A new NFT digital asset from the University of Pennsylvania showcases pivotal mRNA research that could lead to life-changing vaccines for COVID-19 and beyond.
Dr. Drew Weissman, a physician and immunologist known for his groundbreaking contributions to RNA biology, and the RNA biochemist Dr. Katalin Kariko developed the modified RNA technology that became a foundational component of BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
Now, 18 months later, “Vaccines for a New Era,” the University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT — non-fungible token — will be released on July 15, a Christie’s press release said.
The digital asset includes a 3D model of the critical technologies that have enabled mRNA vaccines as well as research focused on the discovery and development of mRNA therapeutics for some of the world’s most deadly diseases.
The NFT also features a dynamic video that shows how mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work, including how the mRNA vaccine enters the body’s cells and stimulates an immune response.
The animated digital art demonstrates mRNA encoding of the SAR-CoV-2 spike protein encapsulated inside lipid nanoparticles and administered as a vaccine, providing protection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.
The NFT also includes an explainer, image copies of Penn-owned mRNA patent documents, and an original letter from Dr. Weissman.
The proceeds from the sale of the NFT will be used to further important research at Penn.
While much of the attention focused on how quickly COVID-19 vaccines were developed in response to the pandemic, Dr. Weissman said that it resulted from a career’s worth of research and dedication by him and many other scientists worldwide.
“I laugh because it’s a 25-year overnight success,” Dr. Weissman said.
Initially, he and Dr. Kariko struggled to secure funding for their critical research.
“‘It took over 10 years to get people to recognize the potential of modified mRNA technology for therapeutic and vaccine development,” he said. “But Kati and I weren’t just sitting in a room hoping; we never gave up. The data looked very promising. The feeling that it would someday work and be a useful technology in creating new therapies kept us going.”
Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman together discovered how to modify mRNA to significantly reduce its inherent inflammatory activity.
Dr. Weissman’s lab later developed a delivery technique to package the mRNA in fat droplets known as lipid nanoparticles. These advances contributed to mRNA becoming safer, more effective and more practical for use in vaccines.
When the DNA sequence for the coronavirus was released on Jan. 10, 2020, vaccine developers immediately began to use Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko’s modified mRNA technology.
“When we saw that it was a coronavirus, we knew it was the spike protein that would be targeted in a vaccine,” Dr. Weissman said.
The first modified mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, which was initially found to prevent severe disease and death with exceptional efficacy, was an important milestone.
“As a physician, my career aim has always been to contribute to development of technologies and products that help people,” Dr. Weissman said. “So seeing these extremely positive results of the Phase 3 human trials for modified mRNA vaccines against SAR-CoV-2 was an incredible feeling,” he said.
“Art is really important in communicating scientific ideas to the public. It’s a way to introduce people to science, how it works, why it’s so exciting, and its future potential. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one of many potential future products that may benefit from the modified mRNA technology developed at Penn.”
Dr. Weissman and his colleagues are developing a variety of potential future vaccines and therapies, such as a pan-coronavirus vaccine to prevent future pandemics, a universal flu vaccine, as well as vaccines to prevent herpes and malaria, among others.
Dr. Weissman also highlighted the possibility of using mRNA in vaccines to prevent fatal allergies and for gene therapies to treat sickle cell anemia.
The sale of the University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT: Vaccines for a New Era will run exclusively online from July 15-25.