In a landmark recognition of their pioneering work in the development of mRNA vaccines, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2023 has been awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. The Nobel Prize committee made this prestigious announcement in Sweden on Monday, hailing their research as a game-changer in the battle against infectious diseases, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic.
Karikó and Weissman’s groundbreaking findings, originally published in a 2005 paper that garnered little attention at the time, have since revolutionized our understanding of how messenger RNA (mRNA) interacts with the immune system. Their work laid the foundation for the rapid development of mRNA vaccines, which have played a pivotal role in curtailing the spread of COVID-19.
The Nobel Prize committee praised the laureates for their outstanding contribution to science, noting that their work had led to an unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the most significant health crises of modern times. The development and distribution of mRNA vaccines by companies like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have collectively saved millions of lives, reduced the severity of COVID-19 cases, and enabled societies worldwide to reopen.
Rickard Sandberg, a member of the Nobel Prize in Medicine committee, emphasized the global impact of mRNA vaccines, stating, “mRNA vaccines, together with other COVID-19 vaccines, have been administered over 13 billion times. Together, they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe COVID-19, reduced the overall disease burden, and enabled societies to open up again.”
Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian-American biochemist, and Drew Weissman, an American physician, are both esteemed professors at the University of Pennsylvania. Their groundbreaking research provided the foundation for Pfizer and BioNTech, as well as Moderna, to utilize mRNA technology for vaccine development.
The significance of their work extends beyond COVID-19. mRNA technology opens new avenues in medicine, offering the potential to develop vaccines against a range of diseases, including malaria, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and HIV. Furthermore, it holds promise in personalized vaccine approaches for infectious diseases like cancer.
The Nobel Prize, one of the most prestigious recognitions in the scientific world, comes with an award of 11 million Swedish crowns (approximately $1 million), which will be shared by Karikó and Weissman.
Katalin Karikó served as senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at BioNTech until 2022 and has continued to advise the company. She is also a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
The breakthrough by Karikó and Weissman involved the development of nucleoside base modifications, which prevent the immune system from mounting an inflammatory response against lab-made mRNA—an essential advancement that had previously hindered the therapeutic use of this technology.
To date, mRNA vaccines, particularly those developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, have made a significant impact in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) estimated that these vaccines alone helped save nearly 20 million lives worldwide in the first year of the pandemic.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for Karikó and Weissman recognizes their foundational research that transformed our understanding of mRNA and its interaction with the immune system, ultimately benefiting societies across the globe during the recent pandemic.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine marks the beginning of this year’s Nobel Prize announcements, with the remaining laureates to be revealed in the coming days. These prestigious prizes, established by Alfred Nobel in 1901, acknowledge outstanding achievements in the fields of science, literature, peace, and economics.