Scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissmann have been awarded the 2023 Medicine Nobel Prize for their development of the mRNA technology for the production of Covid-19 vaccines, it was announced Monday.
The researchers were honored for their discoveries about modifications of nucleic bases that enabled the development of effective vaccines against Covid-19, the jury said. The winners contributed to the development at an unprecedented pace of a vaccine during one of the greatest threats to the health of humanity in modern times, it went on.
The winners will receive a diploma, a gold medal, and a check for almost US$1 million from Sweden's King Carl Gustaf XVI at a ceremony to be held in Stockholm on Dec. 10, on the occasion of a new anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
Last year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to the Swede Svante Pääbo for the development of paleogenetics and his discoveries on human evolution. The son of a biochemist also honored with the Nobel Prize, Pääbo worked on the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and discovered that we share part of our genes with this extinct hominid.
The Hungarian-American Kariko and her American colleague Weissman began working on “mRNA” technology in the early 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania. Their breakthrough was crucial in developing the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccines. By 2005, the pair had worked out a way to stop the immune system from attacking RNA made in the laboratory, previously seen as a major hurdle against its use.
Rickard Sandberg, a member of the Nobel committee, told reporters Monday that “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.”
He added that “mRNA technologies are now being used to develop vaccines against other infections. The technology may also be used for therapeutic protein delivery and cancer treatment in the hope of further improving human health.”
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated the Nobel Prize winners Monday. “Today is a great day for health, a great day for science, and a great day for vaccines,” he told reporters in Geneva.
Messenger RNA (or mRNA) instructs cells to make proteins that match those found on the surface of pathogens. The body sees these as invaders and makes antibodies and T-cells to attack them; thus, training it to deal with a real virus in the future.
The chair of the Nobel Committee for Medicine, Gunilla Karlsson-Hedestam, expressed hope that mRNA technology could one day be used to fight cancer. “Vaccines that are targeted towards specific kinds of tumors, maybe even to specific individuals or personalized cancers. That will become an area that this platform is really ideally suited for, because of the flexibility,” she told Reuters.
The Nobel season will continue on Tuesday with the Physics Prize and on Wednesday with the Chemistry Prize. On Thursday, the winner of the Literature Prize will be announced and on Friday, in Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize will be revealed. The Nobel Prize for Economics, established in 1969 at the initiative of the Bank of Sweden, will close the season on Oct. 9.