Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and U.S. colleague Drew Weissman awarded Nobel Prize for medicine for groundbreaking mRNA discoveries

Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko (right) and U.S. colleague Drew Weissman (left).

3rd October 2023 – (Stockholm) Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and her American colleague Drew Weissman have been honoured with the prestigious Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2023 for their groundbreaking discoveries related to mRNA molecules. Their research paved the way for the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines during one of the most significant health crises in recent history.

The Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute medical university selected the laureates for their exceptional contributions to vaccine development. The award, considered one of the highest honors in the scientific community, comes with a prize sum of 11 million Swedish crowns (approximately $1 million), which will be shared between Kariko and Weissman.

Kariko, a former senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at the German biotech firm BioNTech, currently holds a professorship at the University of Szeged in Hungary and serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).

During a joint appearance at UPenn’s Philadelphia campus, Kariko and Weissman expressed their dedication to their work, emphasising that their primary goal was to develop a product that could make a positive impact rather than seeking personal recognition or rewards. Kariko, who faced challenges securing grants for her research, highlighted the importance of creating a helpful product.

Weissman, also a professor in vaccine research at UPenn, described winning the Nobel Prize as a lifelong dream. He and Kariko had worked closely together for over 20 years, even exchanging emails in the middle of the night as they both struggled with sleep disturbances.

In 2005, Kariko and Weissman made a significant breakthrough by developing nucleoside base modifications. These modifications helped prevent the immune system from launching an inflammatory response against lab-made mRNA, which had previously been a major obstacle in utilising mRNA technology for therapeutic purposes. At that time, RNA research garnered little attention, and many scientists had given up on its potential.

BioNTech, in collaboration with Pfizer, co-developed an mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine that has been administered to approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide, making it the most widely used vaccine in the Western world.

Kariko’s journey to this groundbreaking discovery began in a village without basic amenities like running water or a refrigerator. After obtaining a biochemistry doctorate in Szeged, Hungary, she and her husband sold their Soviet-made Lada car and embarked on a journey to the United States with their daughter, Susan Francia, who later became an Olympic gold medal-winning rower.

At UPenn, Kariko faced challenges in securing funding and recognition for her work on mRNA as DNA and gene therapy dominated the scientific community’s attention. Her perseverance and dedication were met with ridicule from some university colleagues, and in 1995, she was demoted from a full-time professor track.

Weissman earned his doctorate from Boston University in 1987 and joined UPenn in 1997. The serendipitous meeting between Kariko and Weissman occurred in 1998 while they were waiting in line to use a photocopying machine. Their conversation led to a collaboration focused on RNA and vaccines, marking the beginning of their remarkable partnership.

Prominent immunology professor Sir Andrew Pollard from Oxford University, who played a key role in developing the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine using a different technology, praised the Nobel committee’s recognition of Kariko and Weissman’s groundbreaking work.

The award comes at a time when legal disputes surround mRNA patents. CureVac and Moderna are separately suing BioNTech and Pfizer for alleged patent infringements, while BioNTech and Pfizer have responded with legal challenges against the validity of the intellectual property rights in question.

Messenger RNA (mRNA), discovered in 1961, is a natural molecule that provides instructions for the body’s production of proteins. The use of lab-made mRNA to instruct human cells in producing therapeutic proteins was previously considered impossible but has now been successfully commercialised, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic by companies like Moderna.

The Nobel Prize in Medicine marks the initiation of this year’s Nobel awards, with the announcement of the remaining five prizes set to unfold in the coming days. Established by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel in 1901, these awards recognise outstanding achievements in various fields.

Kariko concluded the event by encouraging individuals to pursue scientific endeavors if they have a passion for problem-solving, emphasizing that enjoyment of the work itself should be the driving force rather than the pursuit of wealth or personal gain.