Nobel Prize Awarded to Covid Vaccine Pioneers

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for discovering a chemical change in messenger RNA. Their work helped develop powerful Covid vaccines within a year, preventing tens of thousands of deaths and helping the world recover from its worst pandemic in a century.

The mRNA approach developed by the two researchers was used in Covid shots that have been administered billions of times worldwide and has revolutionized vaccine technology, laying the groundwork for vaccines that could one day protect against many deadly diseases, such as cancer.

The slow and systematic research that made the Covid shots possible is now running up against a powerful anti-vaccination movement, especially in the US. Skeptics have seized on the rapid development of vaccines – among the most impressive achievements of modern medical science – to undermine public confidence.

But the breakthroughs behind the shots emerged little by little over the decades, including at the University of Pennsylvania, where Dr. Weissman runs a lab.

Dr. Weissman said he learned of the prize at 4 a.m. when Dr. Carrico texted him to ask if he had heard from Thomas yet. “No. Who’s Thomas?” He answered. Dr. Carrico told him that Thomas belonged to the Nobel group. Was looking for Dr. Wiseman’s phone number.

The 13th woman to win the prize, Dr. Karikó, for years without funding or a permanent academic position, sustained his research only by allowing senior scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to work with him. He was forced to retire from the university a decade ago, and remains only an adjunct professor there, planning to start a company with his daughter Susan Francia, an MBA and two-time Olympic gold medalist. In rowing.

The mRNA work was particularly frustrating because it met with neglect and lack of funding. She said she was more encouraged than not to be called a quitter; As the work progressed, he saw little signs that his plan would lead to better vaccines. “You don’t persevere and keep saying, ‘I’m not giving up,'” he said.

In 1998 at the University of Pennsylvania through a copier, she and Dr. Weissmann also met for the first time.

The daughter of a butcher who came to America from Hungary two decades ago, Dr. When Karikó ran out of money for his research project there, he became occupied with mRNA, which gives cells the instructions to make proteins. Defying the decades-old orthodoxy that mRNA was clinically unusable, he hoped it would spur medical discovery.

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At that time, Dr. Weizmann was desperate, and this proved untenable in the long run. A physician and virologist who spent years trying unsuccessfully to develop a cure for AIDS, he and Dr. He wondered if Kariko could join in.

When they started their research, it seemed unlikely that it would work. The mRNA is delicate, so when it is introduced into the cells, the cells immediately destroy it. Grant reviewers were not impressed. Dr. Wiseman’s lab instead relied on seed money from universities to start new faculty.

“We saw the potential, and we weren’t ready to give up,” Dr. Weissman said.

Over the years, Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko was stunned. Mice injected with the mRNA were lethargic. Countless attempts failed. They wandered into one dead end after another. Their problem is that the immune system interprets the mRNA as an invading pathogen and attacks it, making the animal sick while destroying the mRNA.

But eventually, scientists discovered that cells protect their own mRNA with a specific chemical modification. So they tried to make the same change to mRNA synthesized in the lab before injecting it into cells. It worked: the mRNA was taken up by cells without triggering an immune response.

The discovery “fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system,” the prize-giving team said, adding that the work “contributed to an unprecedented rate of vaccine development against one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”

At first, other scientists were not interested in taking a new approach to vaccination. Their paper, published in 2005, was rejected by the journals Nature and Science, Dr. Wiseman said. There was study It was eventually accepted by a major publication called Immunity.

But two biotech companies were soon noticed: Moderna in the United States and BioNTech in Germany, where Dr. Carrico eventually became senior vice president. The companies are investigating the use of mRNA vaccines for influenza, cytomegalovirus and other diseases. No one has dropped out of clinical trials over the years.

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Then the coronavirus emerged.

Almost immediately, Dr. Carrico and Weisman’s work combined with a number of different researches to put vaccine makers ahead of the game in developing shots. Studies in Canada allowed fragile mRNA molecules to be safely delivered to human cells and studies in the US pointed to a way to stabilize the spike protein used by coronaviruses to invade cells.

In late 2020, less than a year into the pandemic, which has killed at least seven million people worldwide, regulators approved surprisingly effective vaccines made by Moderna and BioEntech. Both Dr. Karikó and Dr. They used the modifications discovered by Weissman.

About 400 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 250 million doses of the Moderna vaccine have been administered in the United States. Hundreds of millions more have been given around the world. The use of mRNA enables both vaccines to be updated against new variants.

Dr Carrico noted in an interview Published by the University of Pennsylvania on Monday She has stuck to the fringes of academia for years. In the interview, Dr. Carrico said that her mother would tell her every October, “You can win the Nobel Prize and I’ll be listening to the radio.” Dr. Kariko she would reply: “Mom, you know, I don’t even get a grant.”

Dr. Karikó is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine since 1901, and the first since 2015. Women represent a small fraction of the 227 laureates, a reflection of how women are. Still often underrepresented in science and scientific awards, including Nobel Prizes.

Vaccines are now being developed using mRNA technology against many diseases, including influenza, malaria and HIV, that are difficult to vaccinate against. Personalized cancer vaccines also hold promise. They use mRNA tailored to an individual patient’s tumor to teach that person’s immune system to attack proteins on the tumor.

Dr. Carrico and Weissman’s discovery suggests that mRNA vaccines are critical for escaping destruction by patients’ immune systems and stimulating efficient production of vaccine proteins, the scientists said.

“Now recognized as a transformative technology, it will take years of dedicated scientists to conduct basic research to reach a point where its rapid deployment as a vaccine technology by 2020 is made possible by global collaboration,” said immunologist Brian Ferguson. Cambridge University said. “The work of Katelyn Carrico and Drew Weisman in the years leading up to 2020 made this possible, and they deserve this recognition.”

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The prize went to Swedish scientist Svante Pabo, who created the complete Neanderthal genome and helped develop the field of ancient DNA research.

The prize in physiology or medicine is the first of six Nobel prizes awarded this year. Each award recognizes outstanding contributions by an individual or organization in a specific field.

  • The Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded on Tuesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, John Glaser, Alain Aspecht and Anton Jeilinger won for their independent works exploring quantum difference.

  • The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, Caroline R. Berdozzi, Morton Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless shared prizes for “click chemistry”.

  • The Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on Thursday. Last year, Annie Erneaux won the prize for her work dissecting with clinical precision the most humiliating, personal and scandalous moments of her past.

  • The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo on Friday. Last year, the prize was shared by the Russian organization Memorial; Center for Civil Rights in Ukraine; and Ales Bialiatski, an imprisoned Belarusian activist.

  • Next week, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences will be awarded on Monday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Last year, Ben S. Bernanke, Douglas W. Diamond and Philip H. Dibwick shares the prize for work that has helped change how the world understands the relationship between banks and financial crises.

All prize announcements will be there Broadcast live by the Nobel Prize Organization.

Emma Bubola Contributed report.

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