- Kariko and Weissman pioneered COVID-19 injections
- Scientists win first Nobel Prize of 2023 and one million dollars
- Couple praised for helping save millions of lives
STOCKHOLM, Oct 2 (Reuters) – Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and his American colleague Drew Weissman, who stood in line for a photocopier before making joint discoveries of mRNA molecules that paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines, won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday.
“The laureates contributed to an unprecedented pace of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the Swedish awarding body said in the latest honor for the couple.
The prize, one of the most prestigious in the scientific world, was selected by the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institutet medical university in Sweden and is endowed with 11 million Swedish crowns (about $1 million) to share between them.
Kariko was senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at BioNTech until 2022 and has since acted as an advisor to the company. She is also a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Weissman is a professor of vaccine research at the Perelman School.
The two laureates jointly developed so-called nucleoside base modifications, which prevent the immune system from launching an inflammatory attack against laboratory-made mRNA, which was previously considered a major obstacle to any therapeutic use of this technology.
German biotech company BioNTech said in June that around 1.5 billion people had received its mRNA shot, developed jointly with major drugmaker Pfizer. (PFE.N)worldwide.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) earlier this year cited estimates that in the first year of the pandemic alone, coronavirus vaccines were estimated to have helped save almost 20 million lives worldwide. The BioNTech and Pfizer mRNA vaccines were the most widely used COVID shots in the Western world.
Nobel winners showed in 2005 that adjustments to nucleosides, the molecular letters that write the genetic code of mRNA, can keep the mRNA under the immune system’s radar.
“This year’s Nobel Prize recognizes his basic scientific discovery that fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system and had a major impact on society during the recent pandemic,” said Rickard Sandberg, member of the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute.
“Together they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe cases of COVID-19, reduced the overall burden of disease, and allowed societies to open up again.”
The messenger or mRNA, discovered in 1961, is a natural molecule that serves as a recipe for the production of proteins in the body. During the pandemic, the use of artificial mRNA to instruct human cells to produce therapeutic proteins began commercially, something that was long considered impossible.
The technology represents a radical break from established biotech medicines, which are generated in complex reactors using genetically modified living cells and then isolated and purified.
Messenger RNA, on the other hand, works like software that can be injected into the body to tell human cells to produce desired proteins.
Potential uses include anti-cancer drugs and vaccines against malaria, flu and rabies.
Medicine award starts this year’s awards The remaining five will be announced in the coming days.
The prizes, first awarded in 1901, were created by the inventor of dynamite and wealthy Swedish businessman Alfred Nobel, and are awarded for achievements in science, literature and peace, and in later years also for achievements in economics.
The Swedish king will present the prizes at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death, followed by a lavish banquet at City Hall.
Last year’s medicine prize went to Sweden Svante Paabo for sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of modern humans, and for discovering a previously unknown human relative, the Denisovans.
Other previous winners include Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for the discovery of penicillin, and Karl Landsteiner in 1930 for his discovery of human blood groups.
($1 = 11.0129 Swedish krona)
Reporting by Niklas Pollard, Johan Ahlander in Stockholm and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo; edited by Andrew Cawthorne
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