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Nobel Prize awarded to COVID mRNA vaccine scientists


The 2023 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their work that led to the development of the COVID mRNA vaccine (which will be used to develop many other vaccines) that were administered to billions around the world. These vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, were critical to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m going to briefly talk about this 2023 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine and what it may mean for the future.

person holding a vaccine vial
Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

Nobel Prize for COVID mRNA vaccine

It’s pretty hard to pinpoint one person who gave us these mRNA vaccines. Like with most medical advancements, it takes dozens, maybe hundreds, of researchers over the decades who contribute little bits and pieces to the overall knowledge about injecting mRNA to give us a vaccine.

Although some people have claimed to have invented the mRNA vaccine technology, they had not developed a method to get the mRNA into the cell, which then creates the antigens that induce an adaptive immune reaction that leads to boosting the immune system against the pathogen.

The main obstacle that researchers faced was that the mRNA was causing unwanted immune and inflammatory reactions as adverse responses. Researchers had to figure out a way to deliver the mRNA to the cell without it being destroyed or causing adverse reactions.

University of Pennsylvania scientists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman discovered the method to place the mRNA fragments into lipid nanoparticles to deliver them to the cell without inducing an attack from the immune system before the target protein (such as the spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2) is produced. Without this work, we would not have a single mRNA vaccine. And I cannot imagine how bad the COVID-19 pandemic would be without their research.

Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna licensed their research for the COVID-19 vaccines from Karikó and Weissman through the University of Pennsylvania.

Of course, I could spend an hour listing out every researcher on mRNA vaccines that contributed to the science of mRNA vaccines to get where we are today. There are probably close to 1000 names there. But Karikó and Weissman took the scientific leap that led to a usable vaccine, which, if it wasn’t the most important step, it was probably pretty close to it. There are over 6,000 published articles on mRNA vaccines, so you can tell that a lot of people were involved over the decades, but it was Drs. Karikó and Weissman who did the science that made the mRNA vaccine actually work.

What this means

First of all, let me be clear — the Nobel Prize was not given to the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, but it was given to the scientists who developed the method to get the mRNA to actually work. Those scientists were Drs. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman.

They deserved the award because their work led to the COVID-19 vaccine which saved untold numbers of lives — millions of people are alive because of this vaccine.

But there is much more. The technology behind mRNA vaccines is going to be applied to other diseases and might lead to progress in stopping those that are still attacking and killing humans. For example, mRNA vaccine technology developed by Drs. Karikó and Weissman may be used to treat some cancers.

There’s a bit of irony here — the University of Pennsylvania didn’t offer her a tenured professor position because her research wasn’t deemed important. I’m guessing the university will be calling her soon. At least I hope so.

Citations

Michael Simpson

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