Oct. 2, 2023 -- Two scientists who pioneered an underlying technology to harness fragile genetic material in a way that ultimately resulted in the mRNA vaccines used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic were named winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday.
The honorees are Katalin Karikó, PhD, a 68-year-old Hungarian-born biochemist, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a 64-year-old American immunologist. They worked together at the University of Pennsylvania, meeting by chance at the photocopier in 1998, and in 2005 discovered a new way to chemically modify RNA that eliminated a previously problematic inflammatory response, according to Penn Medicine.
In its announcement, the Nobel organization said the award stems from the researchers’ “discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19"
“During the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes, vaccine developers relied upon the discoveries by Dr. Weissman and Dr. Karikó, which saved innumerable lives and paved a path out of the pandemic,” J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, said in a statement. “Now, the same approach is being tested for other diseases and conditions. More than 15 years after their visionary laboratory partnership, Kati and Drew have made an everlasting imprint on medicine.”
Karikó struggled for years to gain support, interest or funding in her research. About a decade ago, she began working for a startup in Germany called BioNTech, which would eventually partner with Pfizer to make an mRNA COVID vaccine.
Weissman previously worked in Anthony Fauci’s lablab studying HIV as a fellow at the National Institutes of Health. Fauci is former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Both Karikó and Weissman still work for the University of Pennsylvania, according to its website.
“More than 15 years ago at Penn Medicine, Weissman and Karikó found a way to modify mRNA and later developed a delivery technique to package the mRNA in fat droplets called lipid nanoparticles,” according to Penn Medicine. “This ensured that it could reach the proper part of the body and trigger the immune system to fight disease.”
Weissman still sees patients at Penn and is researching a vaccine to prevent the next coronavirus epidemic, a universal flu vaccine, a herpes prevention vaccine, and cancer treatments using mRNA technology. Karikó is currently a senior vice president of BioNTech and adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn.
Karikó and Weissman will equally split the estimated $1 million prize. The 2022 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo, PhD, who sequenced the genome of the Neanderthal.