Nobel Prize awarded for mRNA COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough

Professor Drew Weissman (Left) and Professor Katalin Kariko (Right)

Two scientists, responsible for the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine technology, have been honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Professors Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman will jointly receive the prize.

The technology, initially experimental, has since been administered to millions worldwide to safeguard against severe COVID-19.

This same mRNA technology is presently under investigation for various other illnesses, including cancer.

The Nobel Prize committee said, “The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate for vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”

Vaccines instruct the immune system to identify and combat potential dangers like viruses or bacteria.

Historically, conventional vaccine methods have relied on inactivated or weakened forms of the original virus or bacterium, or fragments derived from the infectious agent.

Conversely, messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines employ an entirely distinct approach.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were founded on mRNA technology.

Professors Kariko and Weissman met in the early 1990s while working at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, a time when mRNA research was considered a niche area in science.

An mRNA Covid vaccine contains the genetic instructions for building one component – a protein – from the coronavirus.

When this is injected into the body, our cells start producing lots of the viral protein.

The immune system recognises these as foreign so it attacks and has learned how to fight the virus, and therefore has a head start when future infections occur.

The big idea behind the technology is that you can rapidly develop a vaccine against almost anything – as long as you know the right genetic instructions to use.

This makes it far faster and more flexible than traditional approaches to vaccine development.

There are even experimental approaches using the technology that are teaching patients’ bodies how to fight their own cancers.

Scientists analyse a patient’s tumour, look for abnormal proteins being produced by the cancer that are not in healthy tissue and develop a vaccine to target those and inject that into the patient.

Profs Kariko and Weissman made the crucial breakthroughs that made mRNA vaccines happen.

The principle taps into normal human biology. RNA’s role in our body is to convert the instructions that are locked away in our genetic code, or DNA, into the proteins that our body is built from.

However, there were challenges. But by refining the technology, the researchers were able to produce large amounts of the intended protein without causing dangerous levels of inflammation that had been seen in animal experiments.

This paved the way for developing the vaccine technology for use in human.

Katalin Kariko is now a professor at Szeged University in Hungary and Drew Weissman is still working as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Previous Nobel winners

2022 - Svante Paabo for his work on human evolution.

2021 - David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their work on how the body senses touch and temperature.

2020 - Michael Houghton, Harvey Alter and Charles Rice for the discovery of the virus Hepatitis C.

2019 - Sir Peter Ratcliffe, William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza for discovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen levels

2018 - James P Allison and Tasuku Honjo for discovering how to fight cancer using the body's immune system

2017- Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young for unravelling how bodies keep a circadian rhythm or body clock

2016 - Yoshinori Ohsumi for discovering how cells remain healthy by recycling waste

Both recipients were notified of their win by phone this morning and were said to be “overwhelmed”


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