A Hungarian scientist, Katalin Kariko, and her United States colleague, Drew Weissman, who met in line for a photocopier before making mRNA molecule discoveries that paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines, have won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
According to the Swedish award-giving body, the Nobel Laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.
The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, was selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute Medical University, and comes with 11 million Swedish crowns (about $1 million) to share between them.
Kariko, former senior vice president, and head of RNA protein replacement at German biotech firm, BioNTech, is professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary, and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
In an interview after the award, she said her late mother had long speculated that she might win the prize and she would remind her there was a time when she could not even get a grant for her research.
“She (my mother) said, ‘but you work so hard.’ And I told her that many, many scientists work very, very hard,” added Kariko.
The co-winner, Weissman, professor in vaccine research, also at Pennsylvania, said it was a lifetime dream to win, and recalled working intensely with Kariko, including middle-of-the-night emails as they both suffered disturbed sleep.
“For the 20 years that we worked together, before anybody knew what RNA is or cared, it was the two of us, literally, side by side at a bench working together, talking and discussing new data,” he said.
The two laureates in 2005 jointly developed the so-called nucleoside base modifications, which stop the immune system from launching an inflammatory attack against lab-made mRNA, previously seen as a major hurdle against any therapeutic use of the technology.
BioNTech said in June that about 1.5 billion people across the world had received its mRNA shot, which was co-developed with Pfizer (PFE.N). It was the most widely used shot in the West.
BioNTech, whose Germany-traded shares were up by 3.8 percent, praised Kariko and Weissman for their passion and persistence.
Having grown up in a village in a house without running water or a refrigerator, Kariko got a biochemistry doctorate in Szeged before she and her husband sold their Soviet-made Lada car, sewed the money into their daughter’s teddy bear and went to the US on a one-way ticket.
The daughter, Susan Francia, became a US national rower and Olympic gold winner.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Kariko tried to turn mRNA into a treatment tool throughout the 1990s, but struggled to win grants because work on DNA and gene therapy captured most of the scientific community’s attention at the time.
She said she had endured ridicule from university colleagues for her dogged pursuit, and her failure to secure research grants led to her demotion in the 1990s.
Weissman received his doctorate from Boston University in 1987, and joined the University of Pennsylvania in 1997.
The duo said they met in 1998 while waiting for rationed photocopying machine time. The ensuing chat piqued immunologist Weissman’s interest in Kariko’s RNA work.
“It is absolutely right that the ground-breaking work on RNA led by Kariko and Weissman should be recognised by a Nobel Prize,” said Sir Andrew Pollard, an immunology professor at Oxford University, who pursued a different technology when co-developing the lesser-used COVID vaccine by AstraZeneca (AZN.L).
The award comes even as Germany’s CureVac (5CV.DE), which failed to bring a COVID shot to market, as well as rival Moderna, are separately suing BioNTech and Pfizer for alleged mRNA patent infringements.
BioNTech and Pfizer, in turn, have launched legal challenges against the validity of the intellectual property rights in question.
Messenger or mRNA, discovered in 1961, is a natural molecule that serves as a recipe for the body’s production of proteins. Use of man-made mRNA to instruct human cells to make therapeutic proteins, long regarded as impossible, was commercially pioneered during the pandemic, also by Moderna (MRNA.O).
Prospective mRNA uses include drugs against cancer and vaccines against malaria, influenza and rabies. The medicine prize kicks off this year’s Nobel awards with the remaining five to be unveiled in coming days.
The prizes, first handed out in 1901, were created by Swedish dynamite inventor and wealthy businessman, Alfred Nobel.
Last year’s medicine prize went to Swede Svante Paabo for sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, and other past winners include Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for the discovery of penicillin.