mRNA vaccine pioneers win Medicine Nobel - GulfToday

mRNA vaccine pioneers win Medicine Nobel

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman are the recipients of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman are the recipients of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

It was a matter of astonishment how quickly the pharmaceutical companies seemed to have produced the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2020. There were two ways the Covid vaccines were made. The first was the traditional way which introduced a dead or a weakened coronavirus into the body so that when the virus attacked, the immune system was able to fight back.

But this required that the genome sequence of the coronavirus had to be isolated and cultured to make the vaccine, and this was a long-drawn process but it was speeded up at the outbreak of the Covid pandemic because a common gene bank of the virus was created. The other way was to use the DNA and Messenger RNA (mRNA) path, which became an innovative field targeted medicine in the 1990s. It is the RNA which writes the genetic script contained in the DNA. Initially, great hopes were placed in DNA vaccines and medicine, but their delivery became a problem.

Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian scientist who had moved to the United States after getting her doctorate in Hungary and while doing her post-doctoral research, focused on mRNA to use it as a tool to deliver medicine into the body. She was able to create a research group at the University of Pennsylvania. There she partnered with Drew Weismann, who was a doctor and a scientist who was into vaccine research, and he was keen to create a vaccine for HIV 1. It is their 2005 research paper which paved the way for mRNA vaccines to be developed. It was not an easy path. Weismann had learned that dendritic cells could be the place to deliver the mRNA vaccine. But they learned that it was possible to change the bases of mRNA – the structural units – to counter the negative side effects, known as the cytokine reaction.

The pharmaceutical companies too went into the mRNA vaccine research for delivering vaccines. And when the COVID-19 broke out in late 2019, governments, non-governmental organisations and pharmaceutical companies went into overdrive, and they invested money to get the mRNA vaccines out.

While the structure of the DNA was discovered in 1953, the RNA came to light in 1961. And from there it took decades for it to be recognised as a useful tool to deliver medicine. The advantage with mRNA is that instead of injecting a portion of the virus – dead or weakened – into the body, the mRNA vaccine introduces the structure of the virus which the body uses to manufacture the necessary anti-bodies to fight the viral infection. And it also becomes easier to alter the mRNA to suit a particular virus and to produce vaccines at an increased speed to counter different viral infections.

Kariko and Weismann complemented each other’s role. Kariko was a microbiologist who was focused on turning mRNA as a tool to deliver the medicine to the body. Weismann was a doctor who was into vaccine research. It is the combination of their research interests that helped Kariko and Weismann to come up with the successful formula of mRNA as a vaccine vehicle. The two have done the groundwork which other researchers at the pharmaceutical companies were able to use to produce the COVID-19 vaccines.

But the patient research that Kariko and Weismann and their research teams carried for two decades made it possible to get the COVID-19 vaccines out. It is necessary to remember that Kariko and Weismann did not produce the COVID-19 vaccines which Moderna, Pfizer-BionTech got out. They were the enablers, a point noted by the Nobel award committee. And mRNA vaccines are here to stay and open fresh fields of research thanks to the work of Kariko and Weismann.

Related articles