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.
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. . .
Here’s a video of Karolinska’s announcement: