Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have been awarded the Nobel prize in medicine for their work on messenger RNA technology, which enabled the development of the first vaccines against COVID-19.
The Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, which is responsible for selecting the winner of one of science’s most prestigious prizes, said on Monday that the discoveries “were critical for developing effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.”
mRNA vaccines work by delivering into the body genetic instructions for building proteins that are present in the virus being immunized against. That spurs cells to create those proteins, which the body then recognizes as foreign and attacks; training the immune system and creating protection against the actual virus.
In the early 1990s, Karikó, from Hungary, was working at the University of Pennsylvania looking at how mRNA could be used in medicine. She was joined in her research by U.S. colleague Weissman, an immunologist specializing in dendritic cells, which are responsible for the body’s immune response during vaccination.
Together, the scientists discovered how to alter mRNA so that it wasn’t immediately detected by the body’s immune system and could deliver its payload to the target cells. Further work by the pair improved the efficiency of mRNA, so that it stimulated more protein production.
“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,” said the Nobel Assembly.
As well as laying the groundwork for mRNA vaccines, Karikó was employed from 2013 to 2022 at vaccine developer BioNTech, which, together with Pfizer, produced the first COVID-19 vaccine approved in the EU.
Pharma companies are now developing mRNA vaccines and therapies for a swathe of different diseases including flu, tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, Lyme disease, Zika and various types of cancer.
The award comes with a cash prize of 11 million Swedish krona (€950,000). In 1951, Max Theiler won the prize for his work helping discover the vaccine against yellow fever.