Scientists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, from Hungary and the United States respectively, have received the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries enabling the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.
“The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19,” the body said. “The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”
Dr Karikó was senior vice-president and head of RNA protein replacement at BioNTech until 2022, and has since acted as an adviser to the company. She is also a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary, and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Dr Weissman is professor in vaccine research at the Perelman School.
Dr Karikó invented a way to prevent the immune system from launching an inflammatory reaction against lab-made mRNA, previously seen as a major hurdle against any therapeutic use of mRNA. Together with Dr Weissman, she showed in 2005 that adjustments to nucleosides can keep the mRNA under the immune system’s radar.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to biochemist Katalin Karikó and immunologist Drew Weissman for discoveries that enabled the development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. The vaccines have been administered more than 13 billion times, saved millions of lives and prevented severe COVID-19 in millions of people, said the Nobel committee…
Karikó is the 13th female scientist to win a Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology. She was born in Hungary and later moved to the United States in the 1980s. “Hopefully, this prize will inspire women and immigrants and all of the young ones to persevere and be resilient. That’s what I hope,” she says.
The COVID-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and the Pfizer–BioNTech collaboration deliver mRNA that instructs cells to create SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, which, in turn, stimulates the body to make antibodies.
For decades, mRNA vaccines were considered unfeasible because injecting mRNA triggered an immune reaction that immediately broke down the mRNA. Karikó and Weissman demonstrated in the mid-2000s that swapping one type of molecule in mRNA, called uridine, with a similar one called pseudouridine by-passes the cells’ innate defences.
“The ideas that she and Drew Weismann developed were critical for the success of RNA vaccines,” said John Tregoning, a vaccine immunologist at Imperial College London, in a press statement for the UK Science Media Centre. “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 discovery has opened a new chapter for medicine,” said Nobel committee member Qiang Pan-Hammarström, an immunologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, at a press conference following the prize announcement. “Investment in long-term basic research is very important.”
“It’s really like a revolution starting since the COVID pandemic,” says Rein Verbeke, an mRNA vaccine researcher at the University of Ghent in Belgium. He adds that Karikó and Weissman’s contributions were essential to the vaccines’ success during the pandemic, and beyond. “Their part was really crucial to the development of this platform.” …
The development of mRNA vaccines and therapeutics is in its infancy, says Robin Shattock, who studies vaccines, infections and immunity at Imperial College London. Scientists and biotechnology companies are busy coming up with new applications for mRNA technology, from cancer treatments to next-generation COVID-19 vaccines. Many teams are also working on improved ways of delivering mRNA. “What we see used today is not what it’s going to be used in the future,” says Shattock. “We’re at the beginning of an RNA revolution. The technology is really taking off.”
On this blog, we had an abundance of discussions about mRNA vaccines. I wonder whether the anti-vaxx brigade will now consider their position. More likely, however, they will merely claim that the Nobel committe is just another element in the big conspiracy that is about to kill us all.