3 October 2023
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023 Awarded to Scientists Whose Discoveries Enabled COVID-19 Vaccines

We would like to congratulate the winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Katalin Karikó, a molecular biologist, and Drew Weissman, an immunologist, who were honored for their groundbreaking discoveries related to nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. The Nobel committee acknowledged that the "laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times."

Over the course of more than two decades of dedicated collaboration, the winners had positioned themselves to make groundbreaking advancements. The breakthrough came when Karikó and Weissman discovered that by altering the fundamental building blocks of mRNA, known as nucleosides, they could prevent the inflammatory response previously associated with injecting mRNA into the body.

They found that the chemical conversion of uridine, a nucleotide of mRNA, to pseudouridine appeared to prevent the body from perceiving the mRNA as an intruder and destroying it, a finding reported in a 2005 seminal paper. Without the unwanted immune response, mRNA can get into the cells to carry out its intended function and provide plans to cells for making proteins.

Subsequent research led to another crucial revelation synthetically developed mRNA not only helped to avoid immune response, but also markedly increased protein production in the body. However, it took several additional years of overcoming scientific and institutional challenges before it became more apparent that base-modified mRNA held promise for clinical use in vaccines. “We focused on doing the science,” Karikó said after the announcement on 2 October. “That’s why we persevere, we are resilient.”

The approach proved invaluable in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as two biotechnology companies licensed and applied the modified mRNA technology for their vaccines, saving millions of lives worldwide.

Today, researchers are exploring the application of the mRNA technology to combat other diseases such as influenza, malaria, ASA, HSV and some cancers.

In a 2022 paper published in the MDPI journal Pharmaceutics, Karikó and her team at biotech company BioNTech, one of the two companies producing mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, presented a methodology for measuring the capping efficiency of synthesized mRNA used in therapeutics.

The journal Pharmaceutics released a Special Issue dedicated to “mRNA Therapeutics: A Themed Issue in Honor of Professor Katalin Karikó”, two years ago, featuring ten articles published between August 2021 and February 2022.

In the MDPI journal Vaccines, Professor Weissman, in collaboration with colleagues at Pennsylvania University and at George Mason University, published an influential review paper titled “Nanomaterial Delivery Systems for mRNA Vaccines”. He co-authored a total of five papers in MDPI journals Viruses, IJMS, Pharmaceutics and Vaccines between 2021 and 2023.

We extend our congratulations to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman on winning this year's Nobel Prize.

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