Open Thread | The Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Those Whose Work Laid the Foundation for the COVID Vaccines

From The Guardian:

Scientists whose work enabled mRNA Covid vaccine win medicine Nobel prize
Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman share £823,000 prize announced by Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm
Linda Geddes Science correspondent
Mon 2 Oct 2023 08.17 EDT

Two scientists have been awarded the 2023 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their contributions to RNA biology that contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during the Covid pandemic.

Prof Katalin Karikó and Prof Drew Weissman share the 11m Swedish kronor (£823,000) prize announced on Monday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.
The Nobel committee awarded the prize for their discoveries concerning “nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against Covid-19”.

These vaccines work by smuggling the genetic instructions for making viral proteins into our cells, enabling them to churn out large amounts of this protein and prime the immune cells to fight the virus.

A significant obstacle in the development of such vaccines was early prototypes of these synthetic mRNAs provoked inflammatory reactions, making them unsuitable for medical use.

Together, Karikó and Weissman discovered that by making small chemical tweaks to the mRNA molecules, they could not only abolish these unwanted inflammatory responses, but also markedly increased production of the target protein. This approach became the basis for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Prof John Tregoning, a vaccine immunologist at Imperial College London, said: “They demonstrated that changing the type of the RNA nucleotides within the vaccine altered the way in which cells see it. This increased the amount of vaccine protein made following the injection of the RNA, effectively increasing the efficiency of the vaccination: more response for less RNA.

“This was a vital building block of the success of the RNA vaccines in reducing disease and death during the pandemic.”

Prof Robin Shattock, also at Imperial College London, added that these discoveries “will be key to the successful use of future RNA vaccines and new RNA-based medicines”.

Karikó, a research professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and external consultant to BioNTech in Germany, was said to be “overwhelmed” by the announcement – particularly as she endured decades of scepticism over her work, and was even demoted by the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-90s because of the lack of funding she was generating for her research. She is still an adjunct professor at the university’s Perelman school of medicine.

Karikó grew up in a small town in central Hungary, where her family lived in a single room with no running water, no refrigerator and no television. After gaining a postdoc at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, she sold her car, sewed the money into her daughter’s teddy bear and moved her family to Philadelphia, US.

Rest of story at link.

I remember reading this NYT piece on Kariko, and saying, ‘ this woman is going to win the Nobel Prize.’
I’m glad that she and her work were recognized sooner than later. They really should do a movie about her. The story about her going against the scientific grain for years, only to be proven right – that’s a movie right there.

From 2021, Glamour on “The Scientist Who Saved the World”:

In 2013—after enduring multiple professional setbacks, one denied grant after another, and a demotion at the institution to which she’d been devoted for decades—Katalin Karikó, Ph.D., walked out of her lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine for the last time.

For decades the Hungarian biochemist had been fixated on the possibilities of mRNA, the genetic messenger that delivers DNA instructions to the protein-making infrastructure in each of our cells. Karikó—with her collaborator, immunologist Drew Weissman, M.D., Ph.D.—believed in its potential to treat stubborn and fatal conditions like strokes and even cancer, hoping that mRNA could be used to program cells to produce their own cures. The two were evangelizers, but their work attracted few converts. Those who knew about it tended to be dismissive: fanciful, nice concept, dead end…

Back in 2013 pandemics were the subjects of big-budget blockbusters like Contagion and books about the great influenza of 1918. Few people expected to experience one, and even fewer knew the name of the scientist whose marginalized research would go on to serve as the foundation for some of the most effective vaccines ever made.

Karikó has never craved fame, nor did she spend decades toiling at the bench for prizes (although she and Weissman have received the Lasker Award, the Horwitz Prize, the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in just the past few months). But fine, she has started to take a little pleasure in certain aspects of worldwide renown. First there’s the dream turned real—for her, scientific progress is measured in actual impact. With millions inoculated and the path out of the pandemic charted on the foundation of her research, she has lived to see the purpose in her work. And second, there’s the small, modest delight she takes in the fact that a few weeks before our interview, she ran into the man who’d led her out of her beloved lab at Penn eight years earlier. He told her he was preparing to give a lecture about her.

“You will talk about me?” she asked him. What about?

The focus, he said, would be on how he’d missed it—one of the greatest scientific and humanitarian achievements in their lifetimes, and he’d let the woman responsible for it walk out the door…

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10 Responses to Open Thread | The Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Those Whose Work Laid the Foundation for the COVID Vaccines

  1. rikyrah says:

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  2. rikyrah says:

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  3. rikyrah says:

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    John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) tweeted at 8:20 AM on Wed, Oct 04, 2023:
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  4. rikyrah says:

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  7. rikyrah says:

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