The Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to a Hungarian Biochemist and an American Immunologist for Contribution to the COVID-19 Vaccine
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2023 has been awarded to Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó and American immunologist Drew Weissman for their groundbreaking work that enabled the development of highly effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.
This announcement comes from the Nobel Committee.
The committee highlights that thanks to "innovative discoveries that have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system, the laureates have made a significant contribution to the unprecedented speed of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in our time."
In the 1980s, effective methods for obtaining mRNA without cell culture, known as in vitro transcription, were introduced. In vitro transcribed mRNA was initially considered unstable and challenging, requiring the development of complex lipid carrier systems for mRNA encapsulation. Moreover, the mRNA produced in the test tube caused inflammatory reactions. Therefore, enthusiasm for developing mRNA technology for clinical purposes was initially limited.
These obstacles did not deter Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó, who was focused on developing methods for using mRNA for therapy. In the early 1990s, she was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. Immunologist Drew Weissman joined her as a colleague at the university. Soon, a fruitful collaboration began between them, centered on how different types of RNA interact with the immune system.
Karikó and Weissman noticed that human dendritic cells recognized in vitro transcribed mRNA as foreign material, leading to their activation and the release of inflammatory signaling molecules. In contrast, mRNA from mammalian cells did not trigger such a response. Karikó and Weissman realized that different types of mRNA must differ in certain critical properties.
In further studies published in 2008 and 2010, Karikó and Weissman demonstrated that the delivery of mRNA, created through base modification, significantly increases protein production compared to unmodified mRNA. The effect was attributed to reduced activation of the enzyme that regulates protein production. Thanks to their discoveries about how base modifications reduce inflammatory reactions and increase protein production, Karikó and Weissman overcame critical barriers to the clinical application of mRNA.