This year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been jointly awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their “discoveries concerning nucleoside base modification that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19”, The Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced on October 2, 2023.
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 press release said.
As early as the 1990s, biochemist Katalin Karikó had understood the significance of mRNA as a therapeutic. However, she and her colleague and immunologist, Drew Weissman’s research came to fruition in 2005 when they published a paper that investigated the impact of nucleoside modification and its effect on the immune system.
Further research papers published in 2008 and 2010, helped fine-tune the initial discovery and helped reduce both inflammatory responses and increased protein production thereby removing critical obstacles which hindered the clinical applications of mRNA.
The pair, who had been tipped as favourites, “contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the jury said, according to AFP.
In honouring the pair this year, the Nobel committee in Stockholm broke with its usual practice of honouring decades-old research.
The first vaccines to use the mRNA technology were those made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna against COVID-19.
Karikó of Hungary and Weissman of the United States, longstanding colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, have won a slew of awards for their research, including the prestigious Lasker Award in 2021, often seen as a precursor to the Nobel.
Last year the Nobel Prize for Physiology was awarded to Swedish scientist Svante Pääbo “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.” Dr. Pääbo’s pioneering work in an entirely new discipline—paleogenomics—has helped the scientific community understand human evolution and migration at a deeper level.
The Prize for Physiology or Medicine kicks off a week of Nobel Prize announcements. The winners for Physics will be announced on October 3, followed by Chemistry on October 4. The winners of the Literature, Peace and Economic Sciences Prize will be declared on October 5, October 6 and October 9 respectively.
The prizes carry a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be awarded on December 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
(With inputs from agencies.)