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2023's Physiology/Medicine Novel Prize Winners Are the Scientists Behind mRNA Covid Vaccines

(Image found on The Guardian).


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to a pair of scientists who developed the technology that led to the creation of the mRNA Covid vaccines: Professor Katalin Karikó and Professor Drew Weissman. 


The news was announced this morning (2 October) by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, as shown through the X (formerly known as Twitter) post (pictured below).


(Image sourced by me; originally from X).


The two researchers shared an 11 million Swedish kronor (1 million dollar) prize for their “contribution to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times”, as stated by the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm this Monday (The Financial Times, 2023). The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896 (Daily Mail, 2023). Alongside this cash prize, the pair will also receive a diploma, a gold model, and a 1 million dollar cheque from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10 (Daily Mail, 2023).


The Nobel Prize committee stated: “The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.” (BBC, 2023). 


Both were told they had won the Nobel Prize over the telephone on the morning of 2 October, and were quoted as being “overwhelmed” (BBC, 2023).


The technology that led to the mRNA vaccines was an experiment before the pandemic but has now been given to millions of people around the world to protect them against severe Covid-19 (BBC, 2023). This same technology is now also being researched for other diseases, such as cancer. 


These vaccines work by smuggling the genetic instructions for making viral proteins into our cells, enabling them to churn out large amounts of this protein and prime the immune cells to fight the virus A significant obstacle in the development of these vaccines was early prototypes of these synthetic mRNAs provoked inflammatory reactions, making them unsuitable for medical use (The Guardian, 2023).


However, Karikó and Weissman discovered together that by making small chemical tweaks to the mRNA molecules, they could not only get rid of these unwanted inflammatory responses but also significantly increase production of the target protein, which became the basis for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (The Guardian, 2023).


The two longstanding colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have won a slew of awards for their research, including the prestigious Lasker Award in 2021 (Daily Mail, 2023). In honouring the duo this year, the Nobel committee also broke its usual practice of honouring decades-old research to ensure it stands the test of time (Daily Mail, 2023).


Their most important research paper in 2005 initially attracted very little scientific attention until their follow-up studies in 2008 and 2010, where several biotech companies began to work on vaccines against viral infections (The Financial Times, 2023).


As Professor John Tregoning, a vaccine immunologist at Imperial College London, explains: “They demonstrated that changing the type of the RNA nucleotides within the vaccine altered the way in which cells see it. This increased the amount of vaccine protein made following the injection of the RNA, effectively increasing the efficiency of the vaccination: more response for less RNA. This was a vital building block of the success of the RNA vaccines in reducing disease and death during the pandemic.” (The Guardian, 2023).


The medicine award is the first of this year’s six Nobels to be revealed, and the prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economics will be announced in the coming days (The Financial Times, 2023).


Who are Karikó and Weissman?


Karikó is a research professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and an external consultant to BioNTech in Germany. Karikó grew up in a small town in central Hungary, where her family lived in a single room with no running water, no refrigerator, and no television. After gaining a post-doctorate at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, she sold her car and moved her family to Philadelphia, USA. 


This is where she met Weissman, now a professor of vaccine research at the Perelman School of Medicine. Weissman grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, to a Jewish father and an Italian mother. He received his BA and MA from Brandeis University in 1981, where he majored in biochemistry and enzymology, and later received his MD and post-doctorate in 1987 at Boston University (Brandeis Now, 2020). 


Their first meeting was in the 1990s, while working at the University of Pennsylvania, after a chance meeting while photocopying research papers (Daily Mail, 2023). From that point onwards, the pair discovered how mRNA could be manipulated and delivered to human cells in a stable form, and they worked out how to prevent the immune system from destroying the mRNA (The Financial Times, 2023).


Recognition for their important work only truly bubbled to the surface in 2020, where Karikó previously told The Guardian: “I always wished that I would live long enough to see something that I’ve worked on be approved” (The Guardian, 2020). 


It seems the pair have fulfilled that wish, and the recognition of a Nobel Prize will be something to be proud of. Now, the rest of the world shall wait excitedly to see who the next Nobel Prize winner will be this year. 

Edited by: Shahnawaz Chodhry


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