COVID mRNA Vaccine Tech Among Winners Of The $3 Million 2022 Breakthrough Prizes

The breakthrough Prize in Life Science: Image Credit: Breakthrough Prize/IFLScience

The winners of the 2022 Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences, and Mathematics have been announced together with several other early career awards given by the Breakthrough Prize. The "Oscars of Science", now in their 10th year, honors the biggest advances in science, so it's not surprising this year an important focus has been given to technologies and breakthroughs that made the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines possible. Other highlights include the most accurate atomic clock yet.

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences has three $3 million prizes. The first joint winners are Professors Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, whose work on an RNA-mediated mechanism was behind a crucial COVID-fighting technology. Their research has been foundational for the development of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, and has incredible potential for other treatments.

Speaking to IFLScience, Prof. Karikó noted the significant challenges in developing such approaches over the decades but also how this technology is being investigated as an essential tool not just for fighting pathogens like coronaviruses and HIV but also in treating diseases such as cancer and leukemia. Its uses could be game-changing. 

“It is just up to the imagination of fellow scientists. They get an idea and then use the mRNA to explore whatever their idea is,” Prof. Karikó told IFLScience.

Prof. Karikó was keen to stress that the quick response to the COVID-19 pandemic was not just a matter of having mRNA vaccine technology ready. From Next-Generation DNA sequencing to the invention of the Internet, everything that enabled faster scientific investigation, connected international teams, and brought volunteers to the clinical trials was crucial in the delivery of these life-saving vaccines.   

This leads to the second joint winners, Professors Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman from the University of Cambridge, who together with Pascal Mayer invented “Next-Generation DNA sequencing”, which began being employed in 2006. This approach to genomic sequencing was 1 million times faster than what was used to complete the Humane Genome Project just a few years earlier. It made sequencing faster, cheaper, and more accessible.  

“The motivation was to enable humane genome sequencing at a scale that was meaningful in relation to the size of the population in order to understand the genetic basis of who we are,” Professor Balasubramanian told IFLScience. “The biggest motivation was to make a difference to human health.”

The impact of the technology can be seen across all aspects of medicine and biology but its use has really been highlighted over the last two years as it has been employed to quickly study the emergence of variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The third Life Science winner is Professor Jeffrey W. Kelly, an expert in neurodegenerative disease. He discovered a treatment for Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy, a rare disease that afflicts 1 out of 500 persons in Portugal.

The $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to Hidetoshi Katori and Jun Ye, respectively from the University of Tokyo and RIKEN and the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their research has been fundamental in the invention and development of the most accurate clock in the world, the optical lattice clock, which just this year reached the best level of accuracy yet.

The high level of precision in measuring time opens the door to both incredible investigations of the nature of reality itself but also breakthroughs in how many disciplines and technologies operate. The researchers are keen to push the envelop even further, reaching a precision 100 or even 1,000 times better than what’s been achieved so far.

Those measurements were so accurate that their uncertainties never exceeded 8 parts in 1018 (or 0.000000000000000008). Becoming even more precise will allow getting to a point where the effects of quantum mechanics and relativity become dominant.

“There will be very interesting discoveries that are waiting for us if we get to the times that are sensitive to the very small space-time curvature,” Professor Ye told IFLScience.

The other exciting consequence of these clocks is that by making them portable, their sensitivity to gravity and their high precision will allow for new approaches to studying, for example, what’s beneath our feet inside our planet, Prof. Ye explained. They will also improve other technologies that require precision timing, and may even lead to the redefinition of the second itself.

The $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics went to Professor Takuro Mochizuki of Kyoto University for what is considered “monumental work leading to a breakthrough in our understanding of the theory of bundles with flat connections over algebraic varieties”.

The Breakthrough Prize also awards the Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize and the New Horizons Prizes in Mathematics and Physics. The Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize is awarded to early-career women mathematicians and this year the winners are Sara Peluse, Hong Wang, and Yilin Wang.

The New Horizons in Physics Prize winners include Suchitra Sebastian, who was awarded the prize for high precision measurements of the properties of incredible materials such as high-temperature superconductors and unconventional insulators; Alessandra Corsi, Gregg Hallinan, Mansi Manoj Kasliwal, and Raffaella Margutti, whose leadership has been fundamental in the electromagnetic observations of the first neutron star collision following the detection of its gravitational waves; and Dominic Else, Vedika Khemani, Haruki Watanabe, and Norman Y. Yao for their incredible work at the limit of matter, including the creation of the time crystals.

The winners of the New Horizons Prize in Mathematics are Aaron Brown and Sebastian Hurtado for their contributions to the proof of Zimmer's conjecture; Jack Thorne for his "transformative" contributions to algebraic number theory; and Jacob Tsimerman for his breakthroughs on the André-Oort and Griffiths conjectures.


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