Kariko, Weissman win medicine Nobel for work that enabled mRNA vaccines

By, New Delhi
Oct 03, 2023 06:02 AM IST

Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Medicine Prize for their contribution to the development of mRNA technology, enabling the creation of COVID-19 vaccines.

In 2020, as the world frantically tried — amid lockdowns, disinformation and fear — to build a vaccine to battle and control the pandemic, messenger RNA (mRNA) technology fine-tuned by biochemical scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman paved the way for the first weapon against Covid-19.

Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó (AFP)
Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó (AFP)

On Monday, Kariko and Weissman were awarded the Nobel Medicine Prize for they, as the jury said, “contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times”.

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The first mRNA vaccines were approved for use against the illness in December, 2020, less than 10 months after the pandemic was declared. Together with other Covid vaccines, the mRNA doses “have saved millions of lives and prevented severe disease in many more”, the jury said.

Kariko, 68, and Weissman, 64, longstanding colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, have already won a slew of awards for their research.

mRNA as a potential for therapeutic use was first mooted in 1990s but it hardly translated into practical use. What Kariko and Weissman did, put simply, is cracked the last piece of the puzzle to make the platform usable. They swapped out a basic building block of mRNA called uridine for a related molecule called pseudouridine, allowing strands of mRNA to get their message to cells without triggering an immune attack.

They released their findings in a groundbreaking paper in 2005. But the true nature of their discovery would be visible only during the pandemic, when the platform led to not just some of the most potent vaccines, but also the ones that could be produced the quickest, even though they were so expensive that they remain out of reach for the Global South even today.

But what will now rightly deserve the attention of history is the journey Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant to the US, and Weissman took to reach where they are — having met, famously, over the institute’s photocopy machine.

Kariko struggled to get financial support for her research, moving from lab to lab to try to keep her work alive until her encounter with Weissman.

“Kati [Kariko] was working on mRNA. We met, we started talking, and started working on mRNA vaccines. What I noticed early on was RNA was highly inflammatory, and that’s bad when you are trying to make a drug, vaccine, or a therapeutic. So we spent a bunch of years studying that inflammatory activity, and finally figured out how to get rid of it, and that was by modifying one of the RNA code,” Weissman said in an interview that HT published on August 24, 2021.

“We published that (paper reporting the success) in 2005, and that’s the technology that Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use in their vaccines. Kati moved to BioNTech, where she developed the LNP technology (liquid nano particles — the way mRNA is delivered), which is also a crucial part of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” he added at the time.

In media reports published since late 2020, when mRNA vaccines first burst into global limelight, colleagues described Kariko and Weissman as evangelists of the platform, even though many refused to believe it.

Their paper was at first met with a round of rejections. “We first sent to a Nature journal, and within 24 hours, they rejected it as an incremental contribution. I started learning English only at university, so I had to look up the meaning of the word incremental,” she told the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2021.

In 2013, long after that seminal 2005 paper, Kariko decided to leave the university after not being given tenure. A Glamour magazine piece profiling her in November 2021 recounted her last morning at the lab where she and Weissman made the fateful discovery: “That morning at the lab, Kariko’s old boss had come to see her off. She did not tell him what a terrible mistake he was making in letting her leave. She didn’t gloat about her future at BioNTech, a pharmaceuticals firm that millions now associate with lifesaving vaccines but was then a relative upstart in the field. Instead the woman who had bounced from department to department, with no tenure prospects and never earning over $60,000 a year, said with total confidence: ‘In the future, this lab will be a museum. Don’t touch it.’”.

On Monday, she had the final word.

“We are not working for any kind of reward,” said Kariko, in remarks alongside Weissman at UPenn’s Philadelphia campus, a few hours after she was awoken by the call from the Swedish award-giving body. “The importance was to have a product which is helpful.”

Weissman, a professor in vaccine research also at UPenn, said it was a “lifetime dream” to win and recalled working intensely with Kariko for more than 20 years, including middle-of-the-night emails as they both suffered disturbed sleep.

“We couldn’t get people to notice RNA as something interesting,” Weissman said on Monday. “Pretty much everybody gave up on it.”

Kariko is only the 13th woman to win the Medicine Prize.

Speaking to Swedish Radio (SR) on Monday, she said her late mother always had faith in her, listening to the Nobel prize announcements “year after year” hoping to hear her daughter’s name called out.

“Unfortunately, five years ago she passed at the age of 89. She might be listening from above,” Kariko said.

Thomas Perlmann, the secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, called Kariko “an extraordinary and unusual scientist” who “resisted any temptation” to do “something easier”.

Weissman told AFP he heard the news from Kariko, who received the call from the jury first.

“We were wondering if somebody was pulling a prank on us,” he said. “This is the ultimate — this is the prize I thought of when I was five years old when I started to get interested in how things worked.”

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