COVID-19 vaccine pioneers win Nobel Prize

Katalin Karikó, PhD, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD — two Penn Medicine scientists known for their groundbreaking work on messenger RNA that laid the foundation for COVID-19 vaccines — have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. 

The discoveries "fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system," and played a pivotal role in the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic, the Nobel Foundation said in an Oct. 2 news release. 

Dr. Karikó, an mRNA specialist originally from Hungary, and Dr. Weissman, a physician and virologist, began their collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania in 1998. Their initial goal was to create an HIV vaccine using mRNA technology, which at the time was considered impractical because cells would destroy the introduced mRNA, according to The New York Times.

After numerous experiments with mice failed, they discovered that cells naturally protect their own mRNA with a specific chemical modification. They applied this modification to lab-made mRNA before injecting it into cells, successfully avoiding an immune response.

Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech used this strategy to develop COVID-19 vaccines that have since been administered billions of times worldwide. 

Dr. Karikó's Nobel Prize win is notable as she is the 13th woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine since 1901 and the first since 2015.


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