This year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their work on mRNA vaccines, which were crucial in curtailing the spread of Covid-19.
Karikó and Weissman published their results in a 2005 paper that received little attention at the time, the Nobel Prize committee said, but later laid the foundation for critically important developments that served humanity during the Covid pandemic.
The committee praised the scientists’ “groundbreaking findings” which “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 added in a statement.
Rickard Sandberg, a member of the Nobel Prize in medicine committee, said “mRNA vaccines together with other Covid-19 vaccines have been administered over 13 billion times. Together they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe Covid-19, reduced the overall disease burden and enabled societies to open up again.”
“This year’s Nobel Prize recognizes their basic science discovery that fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with immune system,” Sandberg added.
Karikó, a Hungarian-American biochemist, and Weissman, an American physician, are both professors at the University of Pennsylvania. Their work became the foundation for Pfizer and its German-based partner BioNTech, as well as Moderna, to use a new approach to produce vaccines that uses messenger RNA or mRNA.
Messenger RNA is a single strand of the genetic code that cells can “read” and use to make a protein. In the case of this vaccine, the mRNA instructs cells in the body to make the particular piece of the virus’s spike protein. Then the immune system sees it, recognizes it as foreign and is prepared to attack when actual infection occurs.
This design was chosen for a pandemic vaccine because it’s one that lends itself to quick turnaround. All that is needed is the genetic sequence of the virus causing the pandemic. Vaccine makers don’t even need the virus itself – just the sequence.
“The impressive flexibility and speed with which mRNA vaccines can be developed pave the way for using the new platform also for vaccines against other infectious diseases,” the committee said, adding that the technology “may also be used to deliver therapeutic proteins and treat some cancer types.”