Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, renowned researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, have been honored with the prestigious Nobel Medicine Prize for their groundbreaking work on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, a driving force behind the development of revolutionary COVID-19 vaccines.
The Nobel committee in Stockholm made this announcement on Monday, highlighting the immense impact of their contributions, which played a pivotal role in the swift development of vaccines during the global COVID-19 crisis. The jury lauded their efforts as instrumental in “saving millions of lives and preventing severe disease in many more.”
Kariko, 68, and Weissman, 64, have long been recognized for their exceptional research, having received accolades such as the esteemed Lasker Award in 2021, often considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize. This year’s recognition by the Nobel committee marks a departure from their usual practice of honoring older research to ensure its enduring significance.
The roots of their prizewinning research trace back to 2005 when they laid the foundation for the mRNA technology employed in COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Unlike traditional vaccines, which use weakened viruses or viral proteins, mRNA vaccines provide genetic instructions to cells, simulating an infection and training the immune system to respond effectively.
While the concept of mRNA vaccines surfaced in 1990, it was not until the mid-2000s that Kariko and Weissman successfully tackled the challenge of controlling the dangerous inflammatory response triggered by these molecules in animals. Their breakthrough technique paved the way for the safe development of mRNA vaccines for humans.
Kariko’s journey to this Nobel recognition was marked by perseverance and dedication, having faced years of obscurity and struggles to gain support for her research on “messenger ribonucleic acid.” Reflecting on her late mother’s aspirations, Kariko shared that her mother had listened to Nobel Prize announcements each year in the hopes of hearing her daughter’s name announced, a dream sadly unfulfilled during her lifetime.
In the 1990s, Kariko recognized the potential of mRNA in treating diseases where precise protein production could be beneficial, like brain repair following a stroke. However, her pursuit faced hurdles, including grant rejections and skepticism from her institution, the University of Pennsylvania, which eventually halted her professorship path.
Kariko’s unwavering belief in the promise of mRNA, distinct from DNA-based gene therapy, led her to confront the inflammatory response issue. Her collaborative efforts with Weissman revealed a crucial flaw in synthetic mRNA’s building blocks, which they successfully addressed by using a modified version.
In 2015, the duo further advanced mRNA delivery methods, employing “lipid nanoparticles” to protect mRNA from degradation and ensure precise cell targeting. These innovations formed the core of COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, marking a turning point in global health.
The impact of Kariko and Weissman’s mRNA technology extends beyond COVID-19, with ongoing efforts to develop treatments for various diseases, including cancer, influenza, and heart failure.
The duo will be formally awarded the Nobel Prize on December 10, the anniversary of scientist Alfred Nobel’s 1896 death, receiving a diploma, a gold medal, and a $1 million check from King Carl XVI Gustaf. In an interesting twist of fate, this Nobel recognition is not the first gold medal in Kariko’s family, as her daughter, Susan Francia, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist rower.