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Penn's Drew Weissman, Katalin Karikó win Nobel Prize for creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19

Penn's Drew Weissman, Katalin Karikó win Nobel Prize for creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19
Penn's Drew Weissman, Katalin Karikó win Nobel Prize for creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 02:38

PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) -- Two scientists, part of the University of Pennsylvania's historic mRNA vaccine research team, won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that enabled the creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19

Katalin Karikó, PhD, an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery in Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in the Perelman School of Medicine, were cited for contributing to the vaccine development during what the panel that awarded the prize called "one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times."  

They become the 28th and 29th Nobel laureates affiliated with Penn and join nine previous Nobel laureates with ties to the University of Pennsylvania who have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  

What is the Nobel for?

The panel said the pair's "groundbreaking findings ... fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system."

Traditionally, making vaccines required growing viruses or pieces of viruses and then purifying them before next steps. T he messenger RNA approach starts with a snippet of genetic code carrying instructions for making proteins. Pick the right virus protein to target, and the body turns into a mini vaccine factory.

But simply injecting lab-grown mRNA into the body triggered a reaction that usually destroyed it. Karikó, a professor at Szeged University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Weissman, of the University of Pennsylvania, figured out a tiny modification to the building blocks of RNA that made it stealthy enough to slip past immune defenses.

Karikó, 68, is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine. She was a senior vice president at BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Kariko and Weissman, 64, met by chance in the 1990s while photocopying research papers, Kariko told The Associated Press.

Why do mRNA vaccines matter? 

Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain's University of East Anglia, described the mRNA vaccines made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna Inc. as a "game changer" in shutting down the coronavirus pandemic, crediting the shots with saving millions of lives.

"We would likely only now be coming out of the depths of COVID without the mRNA vaccines," Hunter said.

John Tregoning, of Imperial College London, called Kariko "one of the most inspirational scientists I have met." Her work together with Weissmann "shows the importance of basic, fundamental research in the path to solutions to the most pressing societal needs," he said in a statement.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at Exeter University, predicted the technology used in the vaccines could be used to refine vaccines for other diseases like Ebola, malaria and dengue, and might also be used to create shots that immunize people against certain types of cancer or auto-immune diseases including lupus.

Peter Maybarduk, at the Washington advocacy group Public Citizen, welcomed the recognition of mRNA vaccines, but said the award should also be deeply embarrassing for Western countries.

"This is a technology that should have been available to all of humanity but it was almost exclusively available only in the richest countries in the world," he said, adding that much of the funding that led to the development of mRNA technology came from U.S. public funds.

How did Karikó and Weissman react?

"The future is just so incredible," Weissman said. "We've been thinking for years about everything that we could do with RNA, and now it's here."

Karikó said her husband was the first to pick up the early morning call, handing it to her to hear the news. She then watched the announcement to make sure she wasn't being pranked.

"I was very much surprised. But I am very happy."

Kariko said she was the one to break the news to Weissman, since she got in touch before the Nobel committee could reach him.

The two have collaborated for decades, with Kariko focusing on the RNA side and Weissman handling the immunology: "We educated each other," she said.

Before COVID-19, mRNA vaccines were already being tested for other diseases like Zika, influenza and rabies - but the pandemic brought more attention to this approach, Karikó said.

"There was already clinical trials before COVID, but people were not aware," she said.

Karikó's family are no strangers to high honors. Her daughter, Susan Francia, is a double Olympic gold medalist in rowing, competing for the United States.

The prize carries a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million) - from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

Nobel announcements continue with the physics prize on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the economics award on Oct. 9. 

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