This year, the Hungarian-born researcher Katalin Karikó and the American Drew Weissman will receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their fundamental work on mRNA vaccines against Covid-19. The Karolinska Institute announced this on Monday in Stockholm.

“Through their groundbreaking results that fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the human immune system, the laureates contributed to the unprecedented pace of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” said the awardees Nobel Committee.

The impressive flexibility and speed with which mRNA vaccines could be developed paves the way for the use of the new platform for vaccines against other infectious diseases. “In the future, the technology could also be used to deliver therapeutic proteins and treat certain types of cancer.”

“Several other vaccines against Sars-CoV-2, based on different methods, have also been rapidly introduced, and in total more than 13 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide,” the committee said. “The vaccines have saved millions of people’s lives and prevented serious illness in many more, allowing societies to open up and return to normal conditions.”

Katalin Karikó, born in Hungary in 1955, currently works at the universities of Pennsylvania/USA and Szeged/Hungary, and Drew Weissman (64) at the University of Pennsylvania/USA.

The most important award for medical professionals was increased by one million to 11 million Swedish crowns (950,000 euros) in 2023.

The corona vaccines from the Mainz company Biontech and the US company Moderna were the first two mRNA products to come onto the market. However, researchers were working on the technology more than 30 years ago. At the end of the 1980s, three scientists – Robert Malone, Phil Felgner and Inder Verma – introduced mRNA into cultured cells using fat droplets and caused them to produce the desired protein.

But genetic engineering soon emerged and a lot of funding went into it. However, Katalin Karikó, who was researching in Hungary at the time, continued to believe in the benefits of mRNA for medicine. She remained loyal to the molecule even when she emigrated to the USA in 1985.

Due to a lack of funding, Karikó initially conducted research in the laboratory largely on his own, and from 1998 also with Drew Weissman. The research duo achieved the decisive breakthrough when they exchanged a component of the mRNA and the mRNA was then no longer broken down in the cell. The experimental mice produced the desired protein.

Despite further blows, Karikó continued on her path and in 2013 met Ugur Sahin, who had founded Biontech with his wife Özlem Türeci. Karikó told the New York Times that he offered her a job that same day. After years of working together, she left the company and has only been its advisor since the beginning of October 2022.

With mRNA, a new class of substances is available for medicine, said the President of the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI), which is responsible for vaccines and biomedicine, Klaus Cichutek, to the German press agency dpa. The mRNA in the vaccines is the blueprint for a viral protein. This is produced in a few cells in the body of the vaccinated person. The immune system then targets this protein.

PEI President Cichutek sees possible future areas of application for mRNA as other preventative vaccines such as those against influenza, as well as therapies against cancer and rheumatism.

According to the Association of Research-Based Drug Manufacturers, five mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 were in use worldwide by September 2023. The development of corresponding vaccines against influenza and cytomegaloviruses, which belong to the herpes viruses, is also quite advanced.

The Nobel Prize cycle began with the Medicine Prize. The winners of the physics and chemistry prizes will be named on Tuesday and Wednesday. These are followed by those for literature and for peace. The series of announcements ends next Monday with the so-called Nobel Prize in Economics sponsored by the Swedish Riksbank.

The ceremonial awarding of all awards traditionally takes place on December 10th, the anniversary of the death of the prize founder Alfred Nobel. The winners of this year’s Alternative Nobel Prizes were announced by the Right Livelihood Foundation last Thursday.