Medicine Nobel awarded to mRNA Covid vaccine pioneers

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman’s research led to jabs that ‘saved millions of lives and prevented disease in many more’, says award panel

October 2, 2023
Walk in NHS Covid vaccination centre in the Westfield centre, Stratford, London. 09282021.
Source: iStock

Two scientists who invented the mRNA technology used in Covid-19 vaccines have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, who collaborated on the pioneering technology at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s and 2000s, were named as this year’s first Nobelists at a press conference from Stockholm on 2 October, with judges stating their work had led to vaccines that had “saved millions of lives and prevented disease in many more”.

The win for Professor Karikó, a Hungarian-born biochemist who moved to the US in the 1980s, and Professor Weissman, educated at Boston and Harvard universities, is one of the most expected awards in recent years, with advocates trailing their potential Nobel win back in 2020 when the efficacy of mRNA vaccines to combat the pandemic became clear.

The Nobel judges explained that the discoveries by the new laureates had enabled the rapid development of mRNA vaccines for Covid – the first of which were approved in December 2020. Along with vaccines using other technologies, Covid jabs have now been given more than 13 billion times, they continued, “allowing societies to open and return to normal conditions”.

“Through their fundamental discoveries of the importance of base modifications in mRNA, this year’s Nobel laureates critically contributed to this transformative development during one of the biggest health crises of our time,” they concluded.

However, the initial discovery of mRNA technology was largely unheralded. The laureates published their results in a seminal 2005 paper that received little attention at the time but laid the foundation for critically important developments.

Professor Karikó has recounted years of rejections from funders and was demoted to an adjunct position at Penn before eventually departing in 2013 for BioNTech, now a celebrated maker of Covid vaccines.

Professor Karikó retains the adjunct position at Penn, where Professor Weissman is Roberts family professor in vaccine research.

John Tregoning, professor of vaccine immunology at Imperial College London, hailed Professor Karikó as “one of the most inspirational scientists I have met”.

“The ideas that she and Drew Weismann developed were critical for the success of RNA vaccines. 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,” Professor Tregoning said.

“This was a vital building block of the success of the RNA vaccines in reducing disease and death during the pandemic. Their work shows the importance of basic, fundamental research in the path to solutions to the most pressing societal needs.”

Brian Ferguson, associate professor of innate immunity at the University of Cambridge, said that Professor Karikó and Professor Weissman “worked for decades building knowledge and understanding that underlies the design and manufacture of mRNA vaccines that saved so many lives during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

“What is now recognised as a transformative technology required dedicated scientists to carry out fundamental research over many years to reach the position it was in 2020 when its rapid deployment as a vaccine technology was made possible by global collaboration,” Dr Ferguson said.

“The work of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman in the years prior to 2020 made this possible and they richly deserve this recognition.”

Speaking at a press conference, Olle Kampe, vice-chair of the Nobel medicine prize panel, said he hoped the prize for the mRNA pioneers would help to combat anti-vaccination sentiment.

“We know that it is a very safe and effective vaccine,” said Professor Kampe, a professor of endocrinology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “Giving the Nobel Prize for the Covid vaccine might make hesitant people take a vaccine.”

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