Oct 2, 2023 - Health

Scientists behind mRNA vaccines win Nobel Prize in Medicine

Photos of scientist Katalin Karikó and scientist Drew Weissman are shown on a screen during the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Medicine today in Stockholm.

Photos of scientists Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman are shown during the announcement for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in Stockholm on Monday. Photo: Steffen Trumpf/picture alliance via Getty Images

Two scientists on Monday were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research that laid the foundation for the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

Why it matters: The prize recognized Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, whose research on mRNA vaccines was originally overlooked by the scientific and medical communities.

  • It now underpins one of the most successful tools against COVID to date.

What they're saying: "The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times," the Nobel Prize committee said.

The big picture: Weissman and Karikó discovered a method to use mRNA, which carries instructions for making proteins, for vaccines and other therapies.

  • The research partners produced variants to mRNA so that it could be used for vaccines without alerting the body's immune system.
  • But their work, published in 2005, initially flew under the radar, and they failed to gain traction for years before two companies — Moderna and BioNTech — took an interest in the technology.

Details: Weissman is a professor in vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

  • Karikó was a senior vice president at BioNTech, and now works as a professor at Szeged University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at Perelman.
  • The two professors "are brilliant researchers who represent the epitome of scientific inspiration and determination," Penn President Liz Magill said Monday.

Go deeper: COVID-19 brings a new dawn for messenger RNA vaccines

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from Penn President Liz Magill.

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