The award committee at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute announced that two researchers who paved the way for mRNA vaccines that have become the main weapon against the Covid-19 pandemic will share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The award, worth approximately $1 million, is awarded jointly to Catalina Carrico of BioNTech and Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania.
The committee honors them “for their discoveries on nucleoside base modification, which enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.”
mRNA technology ‘has had a significant impact on society during the recent pandemic’
Hungarian-born Karikó, a former vice president and now advisor to German company BioNtech, is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where Weissman works.
The researchers found a way to prevent the immune system from attacking foreign RNA molecules, which represents a major obstacle to developing the technology. In 2005, Carrico and Weissman reported that modifying the chemical bases of RNA prevents its destruction by the immune system.
“This year’s Nobel Prize recognizes a key discovery that has fundamentally changed our understanding of how RNA interacts with the immune system. It has had a huge impact on society during the recent pandemic,” commented Rickard Sandberg, a member of the Nobel Committee at Karolinska Institutet. “.
Conventional vaccines contain the pathogen’s proteins, which are recognized as targets by the immune system for antibody production.
In contrast, mRNA vaccines contain genetic instructions that cause human cells themselves to produce these foreign proteins.
If the pathogen mutates, as is the case with the pandemic coronavirus, all that needs to change is the genetic sequence of the messenger RNA.
After COVID-19, mRNA technology is being tested in vaccines against influenza and other viruses as well as vaccines for some forms of cancer.
The Prize in Physiology and Medicine is the first Nobel Prize to be announced. This is followed by Physics on Tuesday, Chemistry on Wednesday, Literature on Thursday, Peace on Friday, and Economics on Monday.
The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded last year to Svante Bembo of the University of Leipzig for sequencing the Neanderthal genome and discovering a previously unknown species of prehistoric humans, called Denisovans.
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