It was announced in early October that the scientists who identified a chemical modification to messenger RNA (mRNA) were awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Winners Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman both contributed to the rapid development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 during the recent global pandemic.
Philip Bevilacqua, Penn State Eberly College of Science chemistry department head and distinguished professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology, co-authored one of the three key publications that were cited in this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The research on the “incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA” was an important stepping stone to help mRNAs make more protein to induce an immune response with a reduced inflammatory response. Bevilacqua’s paper, published in 2010, was a major contribution to the body of research that enabled this development of effective mRNA vaccines.
“It is really gratifying to see Kati and Drew be recognized for exceptionally high-risk research,” Bevilacqua said. “My lab had a chance to work with them in the late 2000’s, which culminated in our 2010 co-authored paper. We even hosted one of their graduate students, Bart Anderson, in our lab. It was important because it showed that mRNA modifications could suppress activation of an innate immune sensor called PKR that we were studying. I remember at the time Kati telling me the promise of mRNA vaccines. It was the first time I had heard of them. It really did change the world!"
The Bevilacqua lab works to attain a molecular level understanding of RNA in biology. RNA is both a structural and informatic molecule, and because it is single stranded, it folds back on itself. This leads it to adopt simple secondary structures such as stem-loops, as well as complex tertiary structures with clefts that bind small molecules specifically and tightly (riboswitches) and catalyze reactions (ribozymes). This diversity of structures gives rise to diversity of functions including the ability of RNA to regulate genes.
Bevilacqua’s research and teaching have been recognized by a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Penn State Faculty Scholar Medal, and a Penn State Distinguished Professorship. He is the author of over 180 publications. In addition, his teaching has been recognized by being designated a Distinguished Honors Faculty Fellow and CESE Tombros Education Fellow and by being awarded the C. I. Noll Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Priestley Teaching Prize.
“Phil has established a long track record of excellence, and this is an outstanding example of his impact,” said Tracy Langkilde, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “His contributions to research and teaching, and his leadership to our college, are absolutely exceptional, and we are proud to have him on our faculty.”
Bevilacqua earned a bachelor of science degree from John Carroll University in 1987 and a doctoral degree from Rochester University in 1993. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he worked on the then newly discovered dsRNA-binding domain and elucidated determinants of its substrate specificity. He joined the Penn State chemistry faculty in 1997 and became department head in August of 2018.