The 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded on Monday to Hungarian researcher Katalin Kariko and American coworker Drew Weissman, who first met while waiting in line for a photocopier and later made discoveries on mRNA molecules that led to the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
In its most recent recognition of the duo, the Swedish award-giving agency stated, “The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”
Weissman joined UPenn in 1997 after earning his doctorate from Boston University in 1987. The two claim they first spoke in 1998 while standing in queue for a limited amount of photocopying time.
The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, was selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute medical university and comes with 11 million Swedish crowns (about $1 million) to share between them.
Kariko, a former senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at German biotech firm BioNTech, is a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). “If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then you shouldn’t do it. If you want to be rich, I don’t know the answer for that. But if you would like to solve problems, then science is for you,” Kariko said on Monday.
A few hours after being awakened by the call from Stockholm, Kariko, who had spent years trying to secure funding for her research, made remarks alongside Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia campus. “We are not working for any kind of reward. The importance was to have a product which is helpful,” Kariko remarked.
Weissman, a co-winner and professor of vaccine research at UPenn, remarked that winning was a “lifetime dream” and recalled their close collaboration for more than 20 years, which included emails sent in the middle of the night as they both had trouble sleeping.
Kariko and Weissman created so-called nucleoside base alterations in 2005 that prevent the immune system from mounting an inflammatory attack against lab-made mRNA, previously viewed as a significant barrier to any therapeutic use of the technology.
“We couldn’t get people to notice RNA as something interesting. Pretty much everybody gave up on it,” Weissman said on Monday.
In June, BioNTech announced that almost 1.5 billion people worldwide had received their mRNA shot, which was created in collaboration with Pfizer. In the West, it was the most frequently utilised shot.
Kariko obtained a doctorate in biochemistry at Szeged after having grown up in a village without running water or a refrigerator. Then, she and her husband sold their Soviet-built Lada automobile, stuffed some money into their daughter’s teddy bear, and took a one-way flight to the United States.
The daughter, Susan Francia, went on to win an Olympic gold medal in rowing for the United States.
Throughout the 1990s, Kariko attempted to employ mRNA as a therapeutic tool at UPenn but struggled to secure funding because research on DNA and gene therapy dominated the scientific world.
“Maybe you have some more copy machines now. I bragged about how I can do RNA, and Drew was interested in vaccines, and that is how our collaboration started,” Kariko suggested at UPenn on Monday.
Sir Andrew Pollard, an immunology professor at Oxford University who used a different approach when working with AstraZeneca to develop the less popular COVID vaccine, said it was “absolutely right” for the Nobel committee to acknowledge Kariko and Weissman’s groundbreaking work.
The recognition comes as rival Moderna and German company CureVac, who failed to commercialise a COVID shot, independently file lawsuits against BioNTech and Pfizer for allegedly violating their mRNA patents. Pfizer and BioNTech have both brought legal actions to contest the legality of the contested intellectual property rights.
A natural molecule known as messenger RNA, or mRNA, was first identified in 1961 and functions as the body’s recipe for making proteins. Moderna also commercially pioneered the use of lab-created mRNA to instruct human cells to produce therapeutic proteins during the pandemic.
Cancer treatments and vaccines against rabies, influenza, and malaria are a few potential uses for mRNA.
The first of this year’s Nobel Prizes is the medical prize, followed by the remaining five which will be announced in coming days.
Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for the invention of penicillin, was among previous winners. Swede Svante Paabo received the award last year for decoding the Neanderthal genome.