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Nobel Prize goes to scientists who made mRNA COVID vaccines possible

Secretary-General of the Nobel Assembly Thomas Perlmann speaks in front of a picture of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND
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AFP via Getty Images
Secretary-General of the Nobel Assembly Thomas Perlmann speaks in front of a picture of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, winners of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on Monday.

Updated October 2, 2023 at 2:38 PM ET

A biochemist born in Hungary and an American immunologist have won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for research that led to the development of the two most important COVID-19 vaccines.

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman met at copy machine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and collaborated for decades to try to find ways to use genetic material called messenger RNA, or mRNA, to make vaccines.

The scientists discovered that modifying a chemical building block of mRNA kept the immune system from destroying the material and enabled it to instead stimulate protection against viruses. They published a seminal paper describing their work in 2005.

When the pandemic erupted, the vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech used the pair's techniques to create highly safe and effective vaccines in record time.

"MRNA vaccines, together with other COVID-19 vaccines, have been administered over 13 billion times," Rickard Sandberg, a Nobel committee member said Monday in announcing the award. "Together they have saved millions of lives, prevented severe COVID-19, reduced the overall disease burden and enabled societies to open up again."

The advance also spurred interest in using mRNA technology to find out diseases, ranging from the flu to possibly cancer, the committee said.

The committee members said they hope the award might help overcome some of hesitancy that has plagued efforts to get more people to get vaccinated against COVID and save even more lives.

The pair's discovery "fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system," the panel that awarded the prize said. In addition, the work "contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times."

Speaking to reporters at the University of Pennsylvania Monday, Weissman, 64, said the pair had to overcome many obstacles.

"We couldn't get funding. We couldn't get publications. We couldn't get people to notice RNA as something interesting. And pretty much everybody gave up on it," Weissman said. "But Kati (Karikó) lit the match and we spent the rest of our 20 plus years working together figuring out how to get it to work."

Karikó, 68, had to overcome big challenges. For years, she went from one low-paying research job to another and even slept in her office at times. She says she was forced to retire from Penn and then commuted to work at BioNTech. But said she never gave up. And her mother never gave up hope she'd eventually win a Nobel.

"My mom, who passed away two years ago at age 89, every fall she was listening and she said to me, 'You know, you might get this year.' And I said, 'Mom, I couldn't even get a grant,' " Karikó said in a 2020 interview with NPR.

The first prize in the category was awarded in 1901. Of the 227 people whose work has been recognized with the prize, Karikó is only the 13th woman among them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley
Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.
Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.