2023 Nobel Prize winners in Physiology or Medicine announced

Two scientists have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contributions to messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology, which later enabled the development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. 

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute announced the joint winners on Monday in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman conducted their seminal research together at the University of Pennsylvania. The pair researched the use of mRNA for therapeutic means, discovering that experimentally base-modified mRNA induces greater protein production and significantly reduces inflammation. This is an important discovery as it helps to overcome some of the barriers that have previously prevented the use of mRNA vaccines, namely the large inflammatory reaction they provoke. Nucleoside base modifications would later revolutionise mRNA as a vaccine technology platform, eventually enabling Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech to quickly develop their own mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Karikó and Weissman refined the technology that led to vaccines that saved the lives of millions. 

Vaccines have traditionally either been live attenuated or inactivated. Live attenuated vaccines, such as the MMR and shingles vaccines, contain a weakened, live version of the virus or bacteria. This allows the immune system to produce specific antibodies that form immunological memory and help protect the body from the disease. Although the weakened version does not cause the disease, it may not be suitable for those with underlying health issues or weaker immune systems. Inactivated vaccines, on the other hand, do not contain live bacteria or viruses, but may not always produce long-term immunity in comparison to live attenuated vaccines.  

The breakthrough in mRNA vaccine technology allows for quicker and more efficient vaccine development. Traditional vaccines take a significant amount of time to produce, while mRNA vaccines can be quickly designed and tested since they do not contain a live or inactive part of a virus. Instead, mRNA vaccines instruct the body to produce the viral proteins itself to build immunological memory and prevent future infection.  

Karikó and Weissman worked on their award-winning research at a time when interest in mRNA technology was low. Their determination and years of hard work have helped modern medicine in profound ways, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Laureates are invited to receive their awards in Sweden on the 10th December. The prize includes a diploma, gold medal, and a $1 million cash reward. 

Featured image credit: Niklas Elmehed

Featured image description: A sketch of the Nobel Laureates, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman