Stockholm, October 2
Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that enabled the creation of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19.
Hungarian-born American Katalin Karikó and American Drew Weissman were cited for contributing “to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” according to the panel that awarded the prize in Stockholm.
- The pair’s groundbreaking findings fundamentally changed understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system, said the Nobel panel
- With the mRNA technology, vaccines can be made in large quantities since their main components are created in laboratories
The panel said the pair’s “groundbreaking findings fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system”. Traditionally, making vaccines required growing viruses or pieces of viruses — often in giant vats of cells or, like most flu shots, in chicken eggs — and then purifying them before next steps in brewing shots.
The messenger RNA (mRNA) approach is radically different. It starts with a snippet of genetic code that carries instructions for making proteins. Pick the right virus protein to target, and the body turns into a mini vaccine factory. But simply injecting lab-grown mRNA into the body triggered an inflammatory reaction that usually destroyed it.
Karikó, a professor at Szeged University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, figured out a tiny modification to the building blocks of RNA that made it stealthy enough to slip past those immune defences.
Karikó, 68, is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine. She was a senior vice-president at BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make one of the Covid-19 vaccines.
Dr Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at Exeter University, said a major advantage of mRNA technology was that vaccines could be made in extremely large quantities since their main components were made in laboratories.
Pankhania predicted that the technology used in the vaccines could be used to refine vaccines for other diseases like Ebola, malaria and dengue, and might also be used to create shots that immunise people against certain types of cancer or auto-immune diseases like lupus. Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel Assembly, said both scientists were “overwhelmed” by the news when he spoke to them shortly before their names became public.
The prize carries a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor (USD 1 million) — from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. — AP