Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and her American colleague Drew Weissman,have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The two scientists first crossed paths while waiting in line for a photocopier and later collaborated on groundbreaking mRNA molecule research that paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines,
The Swedish awarding body lauded the laureates for their significant contributions to the rapid development of vaccines during one of the most critical public health crises in recent history.
The prestigious prize, one of the most esteemed in the scientific realm, was conferred by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute Medical University, accompanied by a monetary award of 11 million Swedish crowns (approximately $1 million), which they will share.
Their Careers in medicine
Kariko served as the Senior Vice President and Head of RNA Protein Replacement at BioNTech until 2022, and subsequently, she has been an advisor to the company.
She is also a professor at Hungary’s University of Szeged and holds an adjunct professorship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Meanwhile, her counterpart, Weissman is a professor specializing in vaccine research at the Perelman School.
Together, these two laureates developed nucleoside base modifications, a crucial innovation that prevents the immune system from launching an inflammatory response against artificially created mRNA.
This innovation was seen as a significant obstacle to the therapeutic use of mRNA technology.
In June, German biotech firm BioNTech reported that approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide had received its mRNA vaccine, developed in collaboration with major pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) also estimated earlier in the year that coronavirus vaccines had potentially saved nearly 20 million lives worldwide in the first year of the pandemic.
Among these vaccines, BioNTech and Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines were among the most widely used in the Western world.
The Nobel laureates’ work in 2005 demonstrated that modifications to nucleosides, the molecular building blocks of mRNA’s genetic code, could effectively evade the immune system’s detection.
Ground breaking discovery
Rickard Sandberg, a member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, emphasized that this year’s Nobel Prize recognizes their groundbreaking discovery in basic science.
Which fundamentally transformed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system and had a profound impact on society during the recent pandemic.
Sandberg also highlighted how their work has saved countless lives, mitigated the severity of COVID-19, reduced the overall disease burden, and allowed societies to gradually return to normalcy.
Messenger RNA, discovered in 1961, is a natural molecule that serves as a blueprint for the production of proteins in the body.
The utilization of synthetic mRNA to instruct human cells to produce therapeutic proteins, once deemed impossible, gained commercial significance during the pandemic.
This technology represents a radical departure from conventional biotech medicines, which are generated in complex bioreactors using genetically modified living cells before being isolated and purified.
In contrast, messenger RNA functions like software that can be introduced into the body to direct human cells to manufacture specific proteins.
This breakthrough has potential applications in the development of cancer drugs and vaccines against diseases such as malaria, influenza, and rabies.
The Nobel Prize in Medicine marks the commencement of this year’s awards, with the remaining five categories to be announced in the coming days.
The Nobel prizes, established in 1901 by Swedish inventor and industrialist Alfred Nobel, are bestowed in recognition of outstanding achievements in the fields of science, literature, peace, and economics.
The prizes will be formally presented by the Swedish king during a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, which coincides with the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s passing, followed by an opulent banquet at City Hall.
Last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Swede Svante Pääbo for his pioneering work in sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct human ancestor, and for the discovery of a previously unknown human relative, the Denisovans.
Previous laureates include Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for his discovery of penicillin, and Karl Landsteiner, who was honored in 1930 for his identification of human blood groups.