Nobel Prize awarded to scientists whose mRNA research led to Covid-19 vaccines

2 Oct 2023

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. Image: Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have pioneered research on mRNA therapies that led to the development of the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines.

Two scientists who made significant contributions to the development of the mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 have been awarded the Nobel Prize this year.

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023 for their “discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines” at a ceremony in Sweden today (2 October).

The committee said that their findings, which were essential for the development of both the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines, have “fundamentally” changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system.

“The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the committee wrote.

Karikó, who is a professor at the University of Szeged and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, she was awarded honorary doctorates from University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin.

The Hungarian-born scientist has dedicated her life to studying RNA-mediated mechanisms with the goal of developing in vitro-transcribed mRNA, or messenger RNA, for protein therapy.

Karikó’s efforts to research mRNA were marked by hurdles, including a lack of grants and institutional support for her ideas. Eventually, she discovered how to overcome the potentially lethal inflammatory response caused by synthetic mRNA that had precluded its use in humans.

Along with Weissman, she was awarded the Breakthrough Prize 2022 for pioneering research on mRNA therapies.

Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) is a single-stranded molecule of RNA that carries the instructions to make proteins. The concept of mRNA was first developed by Sydney Brenner and Francis Crick in 1960 during a conversation with French biologist François Jacob.

“Through their discoveries that base modifications both reduced inflammatory responses and increased protein production, Karikó and Weissman had eliminated critical obstacles on the way to clinical applications of mRNA,” the Nobel Prize went on.

“The [Covid-19] vaccines have saved millions of lives and prevented severe disease in many more, allowing societies to open and return to normal conditions.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic