Published On: Wed, Oct 11th, 2023

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó for Pioneering COVID-19 Vaccine

Stockholm — The Nobel Prize in medicine has been bestowed upon Hungarian scientist Katalin Karikó and American researcher Drew Weissman for their groundbreaking discoveries that paved the way for the development of highly effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Nobel Assembly, made the announcement on Monday in Stockholm.”Through their revolutionary findings, which have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system, the laureates contributed significantly to the unprecedented pace of vaccine development during one of the most significant threats to human health in modern times,” stated the panel responsible for awarding the prize.

Perlmann shared that both scientists were “overwhelmed” with joy upon learning about the Nobel Prize shortly before the official announcement.


Nobel Medicine
In this April 13, 2022 file photo, Japan Prize 2022 laureates Hungarian-American biochemist Katalin Kariko, left, and American physician-scientist Drew Weissman pose with their trophies in Tokyo. The 2023 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to the pair for enabling the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, it was announced on Oct. 2, 2023. 

Karikó mentioned that her husband received the early morning call and then handed her the phone to deliver the astonishing news. “I couldn’t believe it,” she remarked. “I was very much surprised. But I am very happy.”

Weissman currently serves as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he holds the position of director of vaccine research in the Infectious Diseases Division and director of the Institute for RNA Innovation. Karikó is a professor at Sagan’s University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Penn Medicine, their initial encounter occurred serendipitously in the 1990s while photocopying research papers. Subsequently, they embarked on a collaborative journey in mRNA research, culminating in a pivotal discovery in 2005, demonstrating that mRNA could be utilized to activate the body’s protective immune system.

Before the emergence of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines were already undergoing trials for various diseases, including Zika, influenza, and rabies. However, the pandemic drew unprecedented attention to this approach, as Karikó pointed out.

“Clinical trials for mRNA vaccines were already underway before COVID, although public awareness was limited,” she noted.

Traditionally, vaccine production required the cultivation of viruses or virus components, often in large cell vats or, as in the case of most flu vaccines, in chicken eggs. The messenger RNA approach represented a paradigm shift. It commences with a segment of genetic code containing instructions for protein synthesis.

“Rather than cultivating viruses in a 50,000-liter drum and inactivating them, we could deliver RNA, prompting our bodies to produce the necessary proteins, thereby initiating an immune response,” Weissman elucidated in 2020.

The mRNA approach was harnessed in the development of COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna, Pfizer, and its partner BioNTech.

Penn Medicine stated, “When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the true value of the pair’s lab work was revealed in the most timely of ways. Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna utilized Karikó and Weissman’s technology to build their highly effective vaccines to protect against severe illness and death from the virus. In the United States alone, mRNA vaccines make up more than 655 million total doses of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines that have been administered since they became available in December 2020.”

A study estimated that COVID vaccines saved nearly 20 million lives worldwide in their first year alone.

Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, hailed mRNA vaccines as a “game changer” in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

“If it hadn’t been for the mRNA technology, COVID would have been much worse,” he stated. “Vaccines, in general, played a pivotal role in slowing down COVID, and the mRNA vaccines outperformed all others.” He noted that traditional non-mRNA vaccines, such as AstraZeneca’s, are now scarcely used.

“Without the mRNA vaccines, we would likely still be grappling with the depths of the COVID crisis,” Hunter concluded.

Karikó, in addition to being a Nobel laureate, formerly held the position of senior vice president at BioNTech, a company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop one of the COVID-19 vaccines. The BioNTech website states that since 2022, she has been serving as an external consultant. She is the 13th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at Exeter University, highlighted a significant advantage of mRNA technology: the ability to manufacture vaccines in large quantities as their primary components are produced in laboratories.

Pankhania anticipated that this technology could be applied to refine vaccines for other diseases such as Ebola, malaria, and dengue. Furthermore, it might enable the creation of vaccines that immunize against specific types of cancer or autoimmune diseases like lupus.

“It’s conceivable that we could immunize people against abnormal cancer proteins, prompting the immune system to target them after receiving a targeted mRNA vaccine,” he explained. “This technology is much more precise than what was previously available and has the potential to revolutionize not only our approach to outbreaks but also our handling of non-communicable diseases.”

Nobel Prize announcements continue, with the physics prize scheduled for Tuesday, chemistry for Wednesday, and literature for Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, followed by the economics award on October 9.

These prestigious prizes include a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million), funded by a bequest from the prize’s founder, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who passed away in 1896.

Laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies held on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place in Oslo as per Nobel’s wishes, while the other award ceremony is held in Stockholm.

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