Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and her U.S. colleague Drew Weissman have been honoured with the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their groundbreaking discoveries that paved the way for the development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. The Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute announced on Monday, October 2nd.
The prestigious award, one of the most esteemed recognitions in the scientific community, comes with an accompanying prize of 11 million Swedish crowns (approximately $1 million).
Katalin Kariko, formerly the senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at BioNTech until 2022 and now serving as an adviser to the company, is also a professor at Hungary’s University of Szeged. She also holds an adjunct professorship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Drew Weissman, based in the United States, is a professor renowned for his work in vaccine research at the Perelman School.
Kariko’s work involved finding a method to prevent the immune system from triggering an inflammatory response against synthetic mRNA, a previously formidable obstacle in the therapeutic application of mRNA. Collaborating with Weissman in 2005, they demonstrated that modifying nucleosides, the building blocks of mRNA’s genetic code, could effectively evade the immune system’s detection.
Rickard Sandberg, a member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, commended their contributions, stating, “Together they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe COVID-19, reduced the overall disease burden and enabled societies to open up again.”
In 2005, the laureates jointly developed nucleoside base modifications, which served to shield lab-made mRNA from triggering an inflammatory response, a critical breakthrough that had previously hindered the therapeutic use of this technology. BioNTech, in collaboration with Pfizer, announced that as of June, approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide had received their mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine, making it the most widely used vaccine in the Western world.