Cancer Research Institute Media Room



Cancer Research Institute to Honor Developers of COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines in Historic Gathering: “This Technology Will Play a Big Role in Cancer Treatment”

  • Four Key Scientists Behind the Vaccines to Share Virtual Stage at November 10 Event; Katalin Karikó, Ugur Sahin, Özlem Türeci, and Drew Weissman to Receive 2021 William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic Immunology
  • Overdue Opportunity to Understand mRNA’s Origins and Future in Cancer Research

Cancer Research Institute (CRI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the immune system’s power to control and potentially cure all types of cancer, will confer its prestigious William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic Immunology on four key scientists credited with the discovery and development of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19. CRI will present the 2021 Coley Awards to Katalin Karikó, PhD, of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and BioNTech, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania along with BioNTech co-founders Ugur Sahin, MD, PhD, and Özlem Türeci, MD, PhD, during a virtual ceremony to take place on November 10.

During the Cancer Research Institute annual awards ceremony, Drs. Karikó, Sahin, Türeci, and Weissman will take part in an historic joint interview moderated by TIME science and medicine writer Alice Park. “Many attendees likely will be surprised to learn that the mRNA technology that changed lives during the current COVID-19 pandemic originated years ago in research intended to combat cancer,” said Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs at CRI, explaining the organization’s award decision. “And just as importantly for millions of patients, mRNA will play a big role in cancer treatment going forward.”

Coley Award recipients Karikó and Weissman carried out essential discovery research on mRNA beginning in the 1990s, which eventually determined that mRNA could be modified and then safely reintroduced into the human body to produce an immune response. Coley Award recipients Sahin and Türeci, whose own research on the therapeutic prospects of mRNA against cancer led to their co-founding of BioNTech, partnered the German biotechnology firm with U.S. drug giant Pfizer to develop and produce the first FDA-approved vaccine against COVID-19.

“Bringing new cancer treatments from the lab to the clinic and through regulatory approval to patients often is a decades-long process,” said Cancer Research Institute Scientific Advisory Council Director and 2018 Nobel Laureate James P. Allison, PhD, of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, whose own basic research on the immune system resulted in a long but successful bid at FDA approval for the new class of cancer immunotherapy he developed called checkpoint blockade. “The Cancer Research Institute anticipates an acceleration of anti-cancer immunotherapy and vaccine development after the extraordinary validation of mRNA against COVID-19. Our discussion with these tenacious scientists on November 10 will reveal how this new technology not only has turned the tide against COVID-19, but also offers hope for the development of new immunotherapy approaches to treat cancer.”

“It is a beautiful future that we are seeing. There are various mRNA platforms and there will be more in the future,” said 2021 Coley Award winner Dr. Sahin. “Every cancer is different. That means different applications might require different delivery modes and different type of mRNAs, along with combination therapies.” CRI—dedicated for almost 70 years to funding the development of immunotherapies against cancer—currently supports several mRNA-focused scientists and their teams.

CRI’s virtual awards ceremony—called “Future Look: How COVID-19 Vaccines Are Accelerating New Cancer Treatments”—will begin at 12 Noon (EST) on November 10, 2021. In addition to the joint interview with the 2021 Coley Award recipients, the event will include remarks by Drs. O’Donnell-Tormey and Allison as well as presentation of the awards by CRI Scientific Advisory Council Associate Director E. John Wherry, PhD, of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Generous underwriting for the 2021 CRI Annual Awards ceremony and Future Look roundtable discussion is provided by the following:

Leadership: Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation
Patrons: Association for Cancer Immunotherapy CIMT, Clayton Dubilier & Rice, LLC, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Goldman Sachs, The Thomas and Andrea Mendell Foundation, Morgan Stanley
Sponsors: Susan and Jim Blair, Caris Life Sciences, Geoffrey Coley, The Mark Haas Foundation, Sarah Kim, Merck & Co., Inc., Lauren S. Veronis
Friends: BioCanRX, EisnerAmper, M2GEN

Event Contact
Lynne Harmer, +1-212-688-7515 x226, [email protected]

Media Contact
Brian M. Brewer, +1-212.688.7515 x242, [email protected]
(Registration for Nov. 10 event available to credentialed press upon request.)

About the William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology
The Cancer Research Institute established this award in 1975 in honor of Dr. William B. Coley, now regarded as the Father of Cancer Immunotherapy, whose daughter Helen Coley Nauts (1907-2001) founded the Cancer Research Institute. Considered CRI’s highest scientific accolade as well as a predictor of more widely recognized scientific honors including the Lasker Award and Nobel Prize, the Coley Award has been given to 115 immunologists and tumor immunologists including the 2021 recipients. See past Coley Award winners here.

About Cancer Research Institute
The Cancer Research Institute (CRI), established in 1953, is a highly rated U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to saving more lives by fueling the discovery and development of powerful immunotherapies for all cancers. Guided by a world-renowned Scientific Advisory Council that includes four Nobel laureates and 27 members of the National Academy of Sciences, CRI has invested $474 million in support of research conducted by immunologists and tumor immunologists at the world’s leading medical centers and universities and has contributed to many of the key scientific advances that demonstrate the potential for immunotherapy to change the face of cancer treatment. To learn more, go to

Read more:

This website uses tracking technologies, such as cookies, to provide a better user experience. If you continue to use this site, then you acknowledge our use of tracking technologies. For additional information, review our Privacy Policy.