ICYMI: Researchers Win Nobel in Medicine for Discovery That Led to mRNA COVID Vaccine

  • Published12 Oct 2023
  • Author Christine Won
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN
Nobel illustration of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman
Ill. Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to immunologist Drew Weissman and biochemist Katalin Karikó for their discovery that built the foundation for the rapid development of COVID-19 messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, saving the lives of billions worldwide during the pandemic.

Previously, mRNA vaccines had long been considered an untenable delivery system because of the immune response it triggered when injected.

Overcoming initial skepticism and funding challenges, their discovery back in the 2000s eventually enabled the delivery of mRNA genetic material into cells without triggering the undesired immune reactions. They were able to slip past the cells' immune defenses by switching out one type of molecule (uridine) in the unmodified mRNA with another (pseudouridine). This base modification of mRNA changed the way cells viewed the vaccine, fooling them into at long last lowering their defenses.

Big Picture: While mRNA vaccine technology is not new, the pioneering COVID-19 vaccines were the first to undergo full clinical testing and licensure. Their revolutionary development garnered fanfare as well as some public distrust and hesitancy. The Nobel laureates' work transformed our understanding of the way mRNA and the immune system interact, and it shortened the vaccine development time from its usual five to 10 years to just months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, other mRNA vaccines are being developed for various other infectious and noninfectious diseases such as RSV, HIV, influenza, malaria, tuberculosis, Zika, Epstein-Barr virus, and even some types of cancer.

Read More: Pioneers of mRNA COVID vaccines win medicine Nobel. Nature

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Karikó, K., Buckstein, M., Ni, H., & Weissman, D. (2005). Suppression of RNA recognition by Toll-like receptors: the impact of nucleoside modification and the evolutionary origin of RNA. Immunity, 23(2), 165–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.immuni.2005.06.008 

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