In recognition of technology innovation in the medical field, Professors Katalin Kariko (photo above on the right), and Drew Weissman (photo above, on the left), have jointly received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their pivotal contributions to the development of mRNA (messenger RNA) technology, which laid the foundation for the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines.
Messenger RNA technology
Before the pandemic, mRNA technology was an experimental frontier, but it has now been administered to millions worldwide, profoundly impacting the fight against COVID-19. This same revolutionary technology is currently under investigation for applications in other diseases, including cancer.
The Nobel Prize Committee lauded the laureates for their role in accelerating vaccine development at an unprecedented pace during one of the most menacing pandemics that threatened human health in recent history.
Traditional vaccine development traditionally relied on weakened or inactivated pathogens or fragments of infectious agents. In stark contrast, mRNA vaccines, like the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines against COVID-19, adopted an entirely different approach.
Technology’s historical breakthrough
These mRNA vaccines contain genetic instructions for producing a specific viral protein. When introduced into the body, these instructions prompt our cells to manufacture the viral protein in abundance. The immune system recognizes these foreign proteins, initiating a defense response and creating a memory of the virus for future encounters, thereby conferring immunity.
The breakthrough idea behind mRNA technology lies in its ability to rapidly develop vaccines for various threats, provided researchers have the correct genetic instructions. This approach far outpaces traditional vaccine development methods in terms of speed and adaptability.
Moreover, researchers are exploring experimental applications of mRNA technology to teach the body to combat its own cancers. In this approach, scientists analyze a patient’s tumor, identify unique proteins produced by cancer cells, and then design a vaccine to target these specific proteins, which is administered to the patient.
Kariko and Weissman
Professors Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman were instrumental in achieving the breakthroughs necessary to realize the potential of mRNA vaccines. Their work harnesses the fundamental role of RNA in converting genetic instructions from DNA into the proteins forming the basis of our bodies.
Overcoming challenges associated with the technology, they were able to produce significant quantities of the intended proteins without inducing harmful levels of inflammation, as observed in animal studies. This paved the way for the successful development and application of mRNA vaccine technology in humans.
Today, Professor Katalin Kariko is affiliated with Szeged University in Hungary, while Professor Drew Weissman continues his research at the University of Pennsylvania, leaving an indelible mark on the world of medicine and immunology.