Two scientists from America won the Nobel Prize for medicine on Monday for their work on mRNA technology that paved the way for Covid-19 vaccines.
Katalin Kariko (68) and Drew Weissman (64) are longtime colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in America and have won a number of awards for their research on the vaccine. This includes the prestigious Lasker Award in 2021, which is often seen as a precursor to the Nobel Prize.
According to the Nobel Prize jury, these two “contributed to the unprecedented pace of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020 and the mRNA vaccines were officially approved for use in December 2020. Billions of doses have since been administered around the world.
The first Covid-19 vaccines that used the mRNA technology were those produced by Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna.
Unlike traditional vaccines that use weakened virus or a key piece of the virus’s protein, mRNA vaccines provide the genetic molecules. These molecules give information to cells about which proteins to produce, how to simulate an infection and to teach the immune system what to do when it encounters the right virus.
At the time, many members of the scientific community were focused on using DNA to deliver gene therapy, but Kariko believed that mRNA also held promise since most diseases are not hereditary and solutions do not require permanently altering genetics.
She first had to overcome the problem of the massive inflammatory response in animal experiments, as the immune system detected an invader and wanted to fight it.
Kariko and Weissman discovered that one of the four building blocks of the synthetic mRNA was faulty – they were able to overcome the problem by swapping it for a modified version.
They published a paper on the breakthrough in 2005.
In 2015, they found a new way to deliver mRNA in mice, using a fatty layer called “lipid nanoparticles” that prevent the mRNA from breaking down and help place it in the right part of cells.
Both of these innovations were key to the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna.
Their mRNA technology is now being used to develop other treatments for cancer, flu and heart failure, among others.
The idea of mRNA technology first appeared in 1990, but it was not until the mid-2000s that Weissman (American) and Kariko (born in Hungary) developed a technique to suppress a dangerous inflammatory response to control. It was first tested on animals, which then paved the way for the development of safe vaccines for humans.
In the 1990s, Kariko believed mRNA was the key to treating diseases where more of the right kind of protein could help – such as helping the brain recover after a stroke.
Kariko is the thirteenth woman to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine. This follows after she toiled for years to convince her superiors of the need for research on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
She told the media that her late mother always had faith in her and listened to the Nobel Prize announcements “year after year” in the hope of hearing her daughter’s name called out.
“Unfortunately, she died five years ago at the age of 89. She might be listening from above,” Kariko said.
Thomas Perlmann, the secretary general of the Nobel Prize Assembly, called Kariko “an extraordinary and unusual scientist” who “resisted any temptation” to “find the easy way out”.
Weissman told the media he heard the news from Kariko, who first received the call from the jury. He was knocked out.
“We weren’t sure if someone was playing a prank on us,” he said.
The two will receive their Nobel Prize, consisting of a diploma, a gold medal and a check for $1 million, on December 10 in Stockholm.
However, the Nobel Prize will not be the first gold medal in Kariko’s family. Her daughter, Susan Francia is a two-time Olympic gold medal rower.