STOCKHOLM: Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and U.S. colleague Drew Weissman, who met in line for a photocopier before making mRNA molecule discoveries that paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines, won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday. (Oct 2)
“The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the Swedish award-giving body said in the latest accolade for the pair.
The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, is selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute medical university and comes with 11 million Swedish crowns (about US$1 million) to share between them.
Kariko, a former senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at German biotech firm BioNTech, is a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
In an interview after the award, she said her late mother had long speculated that she might win the Nobel – to which she would remind her there was a time when she could not even get a grant for her research.
“She (my mother) said, ‘but you work so hard’. And I told her that many, many scientists work very, very hard,” added Kariko, who was sleeping when she received the call from Stockholm and initially thought it was a joke.
Co-winner Weissman, a professor in vaccine research also at Pennsylvania, said it was a “lifetime dream” to win and recalled working intensely with Kariko – including middle-of-the-night emails as they both suffered disturbed sleep.
“For the 20 years that we worked together, before anybody knew what RNA is or cared, it was the two of us, literally, side by side at a bench working together, talking and discussing new data,” he said in a recording on the Nobel website.
The two laureates in 2005 jointly developed so-called nucleoside base modifications, which stop the immune system from launching an inflammatory attack against lab-made mRNA, previously seen as a major hurdle against any therapeutic use of the technology.
BioNTech said in June that about 1.5 billion people across the world had received its mRNA shot, co-developed with Pfizer. It was the most widely-used shot in the West.
BioNTech, whose Germany-traded shares were up 3.8 per cent, praised Kariko and Weissman for their passion and persistence.
Having grown up in a village in a house without running water or a refrigerator, Kariko got a biochemistry doctorate in Szeged before she and her husband sold their Soviet-made Lada car, sewed the money into their daughter’s teddy bear and went to the US on a one-way ticket.
The daughter, Susan Francia, became a US national rower and Olympic gold winner.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Kariko tried to turn mRNA into a treatment tool throughout the 1990s but struggled to win grants because work on DNA and gene therapy captured most of the scientific community’s attention at the time.
Kariko has said she endured ridicule from university colleagues for her dogged pursuit, and her failure to secure research grants led to her demotion in the 1990s.
Weissman received his doctorate from Boston University in 1987 and joined the University of Pennsylvania in 1997.
The two have said they met in 1998 while waiting for rationed photocopying machine time. The ensuing chat piqued immunologist Weissman’s interest in Kariko’s RNA work.