Medicine Nobel Goes to MRNA Creators 10/02 06:13
STOCKHOLM (AP) -- Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday
for discoveries that enabled the development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19
and could be used in the future to create other shots.
Katalin Karik, a professor at Sagan's University in Hungary and an adjunct
professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Drew Weissman, of the
University of Pennsylvania, were awarded the prize for "their groundbreaking
findings, which have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA
interacts with our immune system," the panel that awarded the prize said.
"The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development
during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times," the panel
Karik said her husband was the first to pick up the early morning call,
then handed it to her to hear the news. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "I
was very much surprised. But I am very happy."
Before COVID-19, mRNA vaccines were already being tested for other diseases
like Zika, influenza and rabies -- but the pandemic brought more attention to
this approach, Karik said.
"There was already clinical trials before COVID, but people were not aware,"
Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel Assembly who announced the
prize, said both scientists were "overwhelmed" by news.
Traditionally, making vaccines required growing viruses or pieces of viruses
-- often in giant vats of cells or, like most flu shots, in chicken eggs -- and
then purifying them before next steps in brewing shots.
The the messenger RNA approach is radically different. It starts with a
snippet of genetic code that carries instructions for making proteins. Pick the
right virus protein to target, and the body turns into a mini vaccine factory.
Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain's University of East
Anglia, described the mRNA vaccines as a "game changer" in helping to shut down
the coronavirus pandemic, crediting the shots with saving millions of lives.
"If it hadn't been for the mRNA technology, COVID would have been much
worse," he said. "Vaccines generally were the turning point in slowing down
COVID and the mRNA vaccines were just so much better than all the others," he
said, noting that the main vaccine used in the U.K., made by AstraZeneca, is
barely in use anymore.
"We would likely only now be coming out of the depths of COVID without the
mRNA vaccines," Hunter said.
Karik was a senior vice president at BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer
to make one of the COVID-19 vaccines. The BioNtech website says that since 2022
she has been an external consultant. She is the 13th woman to win the Nobel
Prize in medicine. Weissman is a professor and director of the Penn Institute
for RNA Innovations at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at Exeter University,
said that a major advantage of mRNA technology was that vaccines could be made
in extremely large quantities since their main components are made in
Pankhania predicted that the technology used in the vaccines could be used
to refine vaccines for other diseases like Ebola, malaria and dengue, and might
also be used to create shots that immunize people against certain types of
cancer or auto-immune diseases like lupus.
"It's possible that we could vaccinate people against abnormal cancer
proteins and have the immune system attack it after being given a targeted mRNA
shot," he explained. "It's a much more targeted technology than has been
previously available and could revolutionize how we handle not only outbreaks,
but non-communicable diseases."
The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was won last year by Swedish
scientist Svante Paabo for discoveries in human evolution that unlocked secrets
of Neanderthal DNA which provided key insights into our immune system,
including our vulnerability to severe COVID-19.
Nobel announcements continue with the physics prize on Tuesday, chemistry on
Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced
Friday and the economics award on Oct. 9.
The prizes carry a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million). The
money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred
Nobel, who died in 1896.
The laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies on Dec. 10,
the anniversary of Nobel's death. The prestigious peace prize is handed out in
Oslo, according to his wishes, while the other award ceremony is held in