Two researchers nab the biology Nobel Prize for work on mRNA covid vaccines

October 2, 2023 • 9:00 am

The Karolinska Institute announced this morning that the 2023 Prize for Physiology or Medicine (what I call “the biology prize”) was awarded to both Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian-American who works at BioNTech and the University of Pennsylvania, and to Drew Weissman. who also works at Penn. They’ll split the prize 50:50.

It was inevitable that a Prize would go to those who developed the mRNA vaccine technology used in covid vaccines, which has wide application, and these two worthies got the nod.  The announcement of the prize is here.

The Karolinska press release is here, and here’s a bit from the NYT announcement (note the barriers and rejections they faced before the triumph):

Their discovery “fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system,” the panel that awarded the prize said, adding that the work “contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”

Dr. Karikó, the daughter of a butcher in Hungary who became an mRNA specialist, and Dr. Weissman, a physician and virologist searching for an H.I.V. vaccine, met over a copy machine at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998.

Their work soon transformed vaccine technology.

Dr. Karikó, who had come to the United States two decades earlier when her research program at a Hungarian university ran out of money, was preoccupied by mRNA, which provides instructions to cells to make proteins. Defying the decades-old orthodoxy that it was clinically unusable, she believed that it would spur many medical innovations.

At the time, Dr. Weissman was desperate for new approaches to a vaccine for H.I.V., which had long proved impossible to defend against. He wondered if he and Dr. Karikó could team up to make an H.I.V. vaccine.

It was a fringe idea that, when they began their research, seemed unlikely to work. The mRNA was delicate, so much so that when it was introduced to cells, the cells instantly destroyed it.

Initially, Dr. Weissman and Dr. Karikó were flummoxed.

Countless experiments with mice failed. They wandered down one blind alley after another. Their problem was that the immune system sees mRNA as a piece of an invading pathogen and attacks it, making the animals sick while destroying the mRNA.

But eventually, the scientists solved the mystery. The researchers discovered that cells protect their own mRNA with a specific chemical modification. So the scientists tried making the same change to mRNA made in the lab before injecting it into cells. It worked: The mRNA was taken up by cells without provoking an immune response.

At the time, scientists were largely uninterested in taking up that new approach to vaccination. Their paper, published in 2005, was summarily rejected by the journals Nature and Science, Dr. Weissman said. The study was eventually accepted by a niche publication called Immunity.

But two biotech companies soon took notice of the work. . .
And the rest is history.

Here’s a video of Karolinska’s announcement:

19 thoughts on “Two researchers nab the biology Nobel Prize for work on mRNA covid vaccines

  1. Expected and deserved, nothing to add here.

    It’s a good time for the NIH to do some serious soul-searching and ask why did they fail so bad and did not provide some basic funding to these researchers? We all should be thankful for them that they persisted nonetheless.

    I am not even going to comment on Science and Nature rejections, it’s not the first Nobel research that has been rejected by these guys.

  2. Sorry about that second post. I got back too late to delete it but go ahead if you like. What I wanted to add to the first one was that Greg Zuckerman’s account of the development of the mRNA vaccines, A Shot to Save the World, is highly recommended.

  3. The 30-minute video of the announcement and some press q&a embedded in Jerry’s post is very good. All Nobel committee people are subject matter experts and give excellent and straightforward answers to the press.

  4. Good choice. Millions saved from COVID deserves this recognition. You never know where basic science will lead.

  5. Interesting that many of the questions came from China. Also interesting that Katalin actually lost her job in Pittsburg and moved back overseas to work. Possibly some people in Pittsburg might be thinking about that move.

    The answer to the question, how does this affect the anti-vaxxcers probably not much. A strong pandemic however, does eliminate some of these folks.

    1. “A strong pandemic however, does eliminate some of these folks.” I don’t think commenters here should be dunking on dead people who may have been victims of their own misunderstandings or prejudices.

      1. And disproportionately they were minorities who also suffered from their own misunderstanding and prejudices. Even as vaccination rates picked up among initially mistrustful blacks so that they eventually exceeded that in the identifiable demographic of older white men with red MAGA hats*, death rates per 100,000 unvaccinated blacks exceeded that in unvaccinated OWMwRMHs by a wide margin. This was chiefly down to higher prevalence of high blood pressure and obesity in blacks, and generally higher attack rates in poor black communities.
        *Yes, really.

        1. Another very important factor may have been job type. Some types of jobs are more suited to ‘work from home’ and/or ‘work with very little human contact’. My guess is that black people are less likely to have such jobs. This factor alone would tend to produce higher death rates.

  6. Congratulations to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. An interesting example of what can develop from a chance meeting – in this case queuing for a photocopier. I’m hoping that most scientists don’t work from home, so the potential knowledge lost from the post-pandemic increased tendency to work from home is minimal.

    Interesting that their paper was rejected by both Science and Nature. Whoops!

  7. There is this very nice article that explains the bells and whistles that went into the Pfizer version of the vaccine against Covid. I have been recently using it in my Intro Bio class.
    The experience of first reading this was very emotional for me, as this was published in the midst of the bad old days of the pandemic. As explained in the article, the vaccine makes clever use of how mRNA is processed and translated in a cell, so it uses a synthetic 5-prime cap, it uses codons that humans prefer to use (rather that the native viruses’ codons, which are often not ones that humans prefer to use in their cells), and it includes various tricks that protect the RNA while also amplifying how much protein it makes. I’ve long taught about this stuff in my intro bio class, and here it was being used to goddam save the world! The vaccine even puts in a clever modification in the spike protein so that the protein really pisses off ones’ immune system so it makes a lot of antibodies against it.
    It is a thing of scientific beauty.

    1. What an excellent paper on the code script!  Thanks for the link, Mark.  Is your intro bio class first year university level?

  8. While the Nobel’s have a history of questionable awards (some can be rather funny in a dark humor way), this is certainly one of the well earned ones.

  9. Congratulations to the winners. Many of us are grateful for their work, and grateful for this high-profile reminder of their contribution to science and humanity.

  10. There’s also the aspect of substituting the codons for a few residues in the spike protein with proline residues, to keep the spike conformation locked into the pre-binding conformation, so that the immune system would mount an offensive against the form of the protein that would do the most good.

    But in this case I suspect that the Committee reasoned that that was just application of already-known aspects of the effects of proline residues on protein secondary structure.

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