2023 Medicine Nobel Laureates
Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were awarded the 2023 Medicine Nobel Laureate for their work on "modifying the nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19", said the Nobel Prize Organisation. Nobel Prize Organisation

The researchers and scientists battling against the COVID-19 pandemic finally got their due recognition as the Nobel Prize Organisation conferred the 2023 Medicine Nobel Prize on two pioneers who initiated the vaccine strategy.

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman of Pennsylvania University bagged the Medicine Nobel Prize on October 2 for their work on mRNA vaccines which set the stage for the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine in record time.

mRNA, or messenger RNA, is a sequence of genetic codes which creates proteins that make antibodies against RNA viruses like MERS and SARS, blocking their replication and infection capabilities. The virus (SARS-CoV-2) that caused COVID-19 belonged to the same group as SARS and MERS, making today's announcement crucial.

Both scientists will share the $11 million prize money for their research of "modifying the nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19", said the Nobel Prize Organisation.

The organisation termed the COVID-19 pandemic "the biggest crisis of our time". This comes at a time when the BA.2.86 COVID-19 variant is causing fresh concerns around the globe, three years after the pandemic, as people prepare for the winter of flu.

Speaking about their partnership Weissman said: "For the 20 years that we worked together before anybody knew about us or cared it was the two of us sitting side by side at a bench and working together. Usually, at 3 or 5 a.m., we would be emailing each other with new ideas."

The Nobel Prize Organisation shared a picture of new medicine laureate Katalin Karikó speaking to her sister over the phone through a post on LinkedIn. The 68-year-old Hungarian Nobel laureate did her PhD at Szeged University and postdoctoral studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1982 and 1985 respectively.

She is the vice president of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals at present. So far 60 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize and Katalin Karikó is the 13th woman to win a medicine Nobel.

Later in an interview given to the Nobel Prize Organisation Karikó underlined how she was forced to retire a decade ago.

Nobel laureates removed bottlenecks of commercialising mRNA vaccines

The Nobel Prize Organisation elaborated on how these changes in mRNA sequence helped scientists understand the nature of the interaction of such molecules with the immune system. This ultimately led to many ways of developing vaccines at a rapid rate.

Earlier vaccines were either made of a killed or weakened part of the virus as seen in polio, measles and yellow fever vaccines. One such vaccine development got the Nobel Prize in 1951 when Max Theiler won the award for the yellow fever vaccine.

Years of scientific research in the molecular biology field led to the use of virus components instead of the entire virus as a vaccine.

Usually, the components of the virus's outer membrane called the envelope are used to make vaccines. This includes surface proteins on the virus which are used to create virus-blocking antibodies.

Most vaccines against viruses like the hepatitis B vaccine are of this kind.

In other strategies, the genetic material of the virus could be carried by a "vector or carrying agent" such as another harmless virus into human cells. This helps to destroy the virus-infected human cells by expressing the protein delivered by the harmless virus. Vaccines like the Ebola vaccine used this vector vaccine strategy.

Eventually, all these methods became labour-intensive and unsuitable for the large-scale and rapid vaccine development required during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is then the mRNA vaccine strategy pioneered by Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman came in handy as the genetic information on DNA could be transferred to mRNA to create proteins.

The mRNA technologies for vaccine development and other therapeutic purposes started in the 1980s but the system was unstable at first and required to be enclosed in a fat capsule.

This limited the scope of mRNA technologies application but Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó and American immunologist Drew Weissman continued their work at the Pennsylvania University in the 1990s. Both of them worked on identifying the effect of mRNA on various components of our immune system.

They discovered that a type of cells in the immune system called dendritic cells could create antibodies in response to mRNA. However, this reaction only happened in vitro or lab-grown cells and not inside the human body.

The scientists further studied to understand that the RNA in the human cell had different elements than in the lab-tested ones. While the lab ones had A, U, G and C in their native format, the human ones were often modified.

After testing different modified structures of the mRNA, they could create an effective mRNA vaccine strategy in 2005.

In 2008 and 2010, Karikó and Weissman proved that these modified mRNA increased the protein production capacity, as an enzyme regulating the protein gets deactivated.

This abolished all barriers to mRNA vaccine development and made way for the commercial application of it as many Pharma companies started working for it. The MERS, SARS and the Zika virus vaccine were all developed because of this breakthrough.

This paved the way for the COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020 using two modified mRNAs which expressed the SARS-COV-2 surface proteins.

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine within 12 months of the outbreak was made possible because of the years of research in mRNA vaccines started by Karikó and Weissman, according to the Nobel Prize Organisation.