For the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from around the world whose groundbreaking work has earned a Gairdner award – Canada’s most prestigious medical science prize – were in Toronto to receive the accolade in person.
Fittingly, among those honoured at a gala on Thursday were three scientists whose discoveries have played a large role in making such gatherings possible.
Katalin Kariko, a senior vice-president with the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, and her collaborator Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania received their Canada Gairdner International Awards for showing how messenger RNA, a molecule that normally carries genetic information from DNA to other parts of the cell, can be re-engineered to work as a vaccine.
They were recognized alongside Pieter Cullis, the University of British Columbia biochemist whose work with lipids ultimately provided the delivery mechanism that enables the modified mRNA to enter cells without being destroyed.
The COVID-19 vaccines developed separately by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna both rely on the system that the three scientists pioneered. It was the timely arrival of those mRNA vaccines, which have now been administered to billions of individuals, that is largely credited with changing the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. The widespread use of the vaccines has since fostered the application of the mRNA technology to a broad range of diseases.
After receiving his award, Dr. Weissman recounted the story of a family he met with a week ago, whose members suffer from a rare and deadly genetic disease that could potentially be cured with an mRNA therapy.
“I could see by their faces they’ve probably heard this many times before,” Dr. Weissman said. “But I could also see hope in their eyes. And that’s what I look for when I do research – the ability to help patients.”
The return of the gala also brought back a favourite tradition at the ceremony, in which winners choose the music that is played when they approach the podium. Dr. Weissman selected the instrumental jazz classic Take Five for the occasion. In contrast, Dr. Cullis requested You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones.
The lyric was an especially appropriate for scientific research, Dr. Cullis said, because efforts that come to naught in one way can still prove important in others. The lipid nanoparticles he developed as a drug-delivery mechanism offer a striking example, he said. Initially, the company he founded to market the technology was unsuccessful in getting the particles to work as cancer drugs, but the approach later proved ideal for COVID-19 vaccines.
“You don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you really get what you need,” he said.
All seven of this year’s Gairdner winners also took part in another of the awards’ traditions, which had them travelling across Canada to speak with university and high-school students about their work.
Dr. Kariko, who grew up in a small Hungarian village in the 1960s – and decided to become a scientist before having ever met one – said she was delighted by the experience and the questions that the students put to her.
She added that Canada still has a way to go in making the work of its own researchers more widely known.
The average person would have trouble, she said, “naming a Canadian scientist who is working hard today. … They know the hockey players and all of the singers, but no scientists – and we have to change that.”
Anna Blakney, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of biomedical engineering who works with RNA, said that public outreach has become an essential part of doing science, in part to combat a growing tide of misinformation online.
“There’s such a gap between what the public knows about and what we’re doing in the lab now,” said Dr. Blakney, who has become know for her TikTok videos explaining the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s come to a head during the pandemic, where we’ve seen people having all sorts of questions not knowing what RNA vaccines are.”
Dr. Blakney was among the early career researchers selected to give talks alongside the Gairdner winners at a Thursday morning symposium at the MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto research hub.
In addition to those who were involved in the vaccines, this year’s Gairdner international award winners included John Dick of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto for his discovery of cancer stem cells, and Stuart Orkin of Harvard University for discoveries related to the genetics of blood cells and their application to sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia.
Zulfiqar Bhutta of Toronto Sick Kids Hospital and Aga Khan University received the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award for his influential work in improving child and maternal health. McMaster University professor and physician Deborah Cook is this year’s winner of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for her multiple contributions to the study critical-care medicine and methodology.