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Scientific breakthroughs often result from years of dedication, collaboration, and a commitment to building upon past research. A groundbreaking study of RNA modification by Phil Bevilacqua ’87 eventually led to the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman earned this honor.


Bevilacqua, a distinguished Chemistry professor at Penn State, played a pivotal role in the research that contributed to the Nobel Prize. His RNA research began during his graduate studies at the University of Rochester, where he focused on RNA and precisely how it reacts to different catalysts. This interest in RNA led him to collaborate with Nobel laureate Tom Cech, who had discovered catalytic RNA, a significant development in RNA research.


Bevilacqua's independent research program has always revolved around RNA, and his work intersects the fields of chemistry and biology. He has a joint appointment in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of his research. This synergy is deeply rooted in his undergraduate days at John Carroll University, which is the blueprint for his students' aspirations.


We have three goals in my labs: to teach, serve, and advance research. I try to stay true to my John Carroll roots, working closely with undergraduate students, giving them the opportunity of authentic research experience in our labs.

The Building Blocks of Modern Vaccines 

Bevilacqua's contribution to the Nobel Prize-winning research began long before the COVID-19 pandemic. It was rooted in his earlier work on RNA, where he and his team focused on RNA nucleoside modification of RNA in cells. This process alters the sequence of RNA, allowing the cell to create different amounts of proteins. These molecular changes help humans better tolerate vaccines and other treatments. 


"This works by suppressing our immune response so that our bodies don't see the mRNA in the vaccine as so foreign," says Bevilacqua. 


This groundbreaking work was not initially directed at mRNA vaccines. In fact, the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was not awarded for the COVID vaccines, but for the discoveries of nucleoside-based modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. The nucleoside-based changes made the vaccines more tolerable to the human body, contributing to their efficacy and accelerating the fight against the pandemic.


The Impact of Scientific Research

This research is even more remarkable because it demonstrates the unpredictability of scientific discoveries. Bevilacqua's work on RNA modification was fundamental research conducted approximately 15 years before COVID-19 was a global pandemic. At that time, mRNA vaccines were not a widely known concept, and there was no race to combat the pandemic.  


Bevilacqua believes this story has an essential message - the value of supporting basic scientific research.


It's imperative to fund basic research where it's curiosity-driven. You never know where things that change the world will come from. And this literally changed the world. I mean, this vaccine and variations of it saved countless lives.

Bevilacqua's research proves breakthroughs occur when scientists explore the unknown, even when they don't have a specific application in mind. His work contributed to the rapid development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. 


Bevilacqua has moved on to plant research at Penn State. He's researching RNA engineering for plants to improve crop tolerance in extreme climates. His commitment to curiosity-driven research remains, and he seeks to help the next generations of scientists understand the importance of this type of research. 


You can read more outcome stories from JCU Alumni here.