Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their contributions to messenger RNA technology, which made it possible to create the initial vaccines for COVID-19.
The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which chooses the recipient of one of the most esteemed scientific awards, announced on Monday that the breakthroughs were crucial in the development of successful mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
The mechanism of mRNA vaccines involves providing the body with genetic instructions to produce proteins found in the targeted virus. This prompts cells to produce these proteins, which are then recognized as foreign by the body and are attacked, thus training the immune system and providing protection against the actual virus.
During the 1990s, Karikó, a researcher from Hungary, was employed at the University of Pennsylvania where she studied the potential medical applications of mRNA. She collaborated with her American colleague Weissman, an immunologist who focused on dendritic cells, which play a crucial role in the body’s immune response during vaccination.
The researchers worked together to find a way to modify mRNA in order to prevent detection by the immune system and successfully deliver its contents to the intended cells. Their continued efforts led to an increase in the productivity of mRNA, resulting in higher levels of protein production.
According to the Nobel Assembly, Karikó and Weissman’s findings on the effects of base modifications have successfully removed significant barriers in the use of mRNA for medical treatments. These modifications were found to decrease inflammation and enhance protein production.
Karikó worked at BioNTech, a vaccine company, from 2013 to 2022. Along with Pfizer, they created the first COVID-19 vaccine approved in the EU. She also helped pave the way for mRNA vaccines.
Pharmaceutical companies are currently creating mRNA vaccines and treatments for a wide range of illnesses, such as influenza, tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, Lyme disease, Zika, and various forms of cancer.
The prize includes a monetary award of 11 million Swedish krona (€950,000). In 1951, Max Theiler was awarded the prize for his contributions to the discovery of the yellow fever vaccine.