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Nobel Prize in medicine awarded to developers of mRNA in COVID vaccines

Nobel Prize in medicine awarded to developers of mRNA in COVID vaccines
Posted at 11:10 AM, Oct 03, 2023

Two scientists who worked on the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine earned the prestigious 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman, both University of Pennsylvania faculty members, received the good news on Oct. 2.

The Nobel Committee recognized the scientists’ long-standing research on messenger RNA (mRNA), which led to a speedy vaccine to treat the fast-spreading virus that caused the pandemic in 2020.

“Through their groundbreaking findings, which 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 Nobel Committee said in its press announcement.

Nobel Prize winners Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

In an early morning interview released by the Nobel Prize account on social media, Weissman said he had difficulty believing the news when he heard it from his Karikó.

“I got a call from Katie a little bit earlier,” he said. “But we weren’t sure it was true. We thought maybe somebody was playing a joke on us. It’s a lifetime dream.”

Karikó, who was born in Hungary, has faced numerous challenges in her scientific career. She told The Guardian that in 1989, her first work on mRNA research at the University of Pennsylvania fell apart due to lack of funding. She was terminated and forced to retire (temporarily) 10 years ago.

In her interview shared on social media, Karikó said the significance of her win meant a lot to her because of her challenges.

She moved into the biotech field to continue her work, and eventually, she made her way back to the university as a research biochemist. In 2008, she met Weissman, a physician and vaccine researcher, who had been working on an HIV vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.

“I met him at the Xerox machine and told him I could make any RNA,” she told The Guardian.

The two scientists released their first significant findings about mRNA in 2005. The pair and their research teams began to study the potential impact of mRNA on our body’s immune system. Messenger RNA is “a molecule that contains the instructions or recipe that directs the cells to make a protein using its natural machinery,” according to Pfizer, one of the major manufacturers of the current COVID-19 vaccine.

Prior to Karikó and Weissman’s work, vaccines had to go through a process of growing the virus and purifying them. However, the scientists wondered if mRNA could act like a virus weapon factory if injected into the body.

Early attempts didn’t work well, and the body’s immune system attacked the mRNA, the Associated Press reported. However, Karikó tried a slight modification to the mRNA molecule. That was enough to protect the mRNA from our body’s natural defenses and allow it to start working on viruses.

Now, this scientific team’s research could be the groundwork for treating other illnesses and diseases, including cancers like melanoma and certain types of pancreatic cancer.

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