The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday to Kathleen Carrico and Drew Weissman, who discovered the chemical changes in messenger RNA that underlie vaccines against Covid-19.
Their discovery “fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system,” said the prize-winning team, adding that the work “contributed to an unprecedented rate of vaccine development against one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”
Dr. Kariko, the daughter of a butcher in Hungary, became an expert on mRNA, and Dr. Weissman, a physician and virologist searching for an HIV vaccine, met at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 through a copy machine.
Their work soon changed vaccine technology.
Dr. Kariko, who came to the United States two decades ago when his research project at a Hungarian university ran out of money, became obsessed with mRNA, which gives cells the instructions to make proteins. Defying the decades-old orthodoxy that it was not clinically applicable, he hoped it would inspire many medical discoveries.
At the time, Dr. Wiseman was desperate for new approaches to the HIV vaccine, which had long proved impossible to defend against. He wondered if he and Dr. Kariko could work together to develop an HIV vaccine.
When they started their research, it seemed unlikely that it would work. The mRNA is delicate, so when it is introduced into the cells, the cells immediately destroy it.
Initially, Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko was stunned.
Countless experiments with mice have failed. They wandered down one blind alley after another. Their problem is that the immune system sees the mRNA as part of an invading pathogen and attacks it, destroying the mRNA while making the animal sick.
But eventually, scientists solved the mystery. The researchers discovered that cells protect their own mRNA with a specific chemical modification. So the scientists tried to make the same change to the mRNA that was made in the lab before injecting it into the cells. It worked: the mRNA was taken up by cells without triggering an immune response.
At the time, scientists were not very interested in taking a new approach to vaccination. Their paper, published in 2005, was summarily rejected by the journals Nature and Science, Dr. Wiseman said. There was study It was eventually accepted by a major publication called Immunity.
But two biotech companies soon noticed the work: Moderna in the US and BioNtech in Germany. The companies are investigating the use of mRNA vaccines for influenza, cytomegalovirus and other diseases. No one has dropped out of clinical trials over the years.
Then came the coronavirus. Amazingly effective vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech Dr. Karikó and Dr. Using the modifications discovered by Weissman.
About 400 million doses of the Pfizer-BioEntech vaccine and 250 million doses of the Moderna vaccine have now been administered in the United States. Hundreds of millions more have been awarded worldwide. The use of mRNA enables both vaccines to be updated against new variants.
Dr. Karikó is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine since 1901, and the first since 2015. Women represent a small fraction of the 227 laureates, a reflection of how women still are. Often underrepresented in science and science awards, including Nobel Prizes.
Women make up less than 7 percent of Nobel laureates, which has created criticism of the institution that awards the prizes.
When will other Nobel Prizes be announced?
The prize in physiology or medicine is the first of six Nobel prizes awarded this year. Each award recognizes outstanding contributions by an individual or organization in a specific field.
The Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded on Tuesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, John Glaser, Alain Aspecht and Anton Jeilinger won for their independent works exploring quantum difference.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, Caroline R. Berdozzi, Morton Meldel and K. Barry Sharpless shared prizes for his work on click chemistry.
The Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on Thursday. Last year, Annie Erneaux won the prize for her work dissecting with clinical precision the most humiliating, personal and scandalous moments of her past.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo on Friday. Last year, the prize was shared by the Russian organization Memorial; Center for Civil Rights in Ukraine; and Ales Bialiatski, an imprisoned Belarusian activist.
Next week, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences will be awarded on Monday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, Ben S. Bernanke, Douglas W. Diamond and Philip H. Dibwick shares the prize for work that has helped change how the world understands the relationship between banks and financial crises.
All prize announcements will be there Broadcast live by the Nobel Prize Organization.