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Drew Weissman & Katalin Karikó to Co-Receive 2023 Nobel Prize for Discoveries in mRNA Technology

October 02, 2023

Their findings, which led to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system.

Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, and Katalin Karikó, PhD, will co-receive the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their landmark work on mRNA technology that led to the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet announced today.

Drs. Weissman and Karikó will be awarded for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. Their findings changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system, the announcement said, which “contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.”

"I am thrilled that this groundbreaking work by Drs. Weissman and Karikó has been recognized with one of the most prestigious awards in the world," said ASGCT President Jeffrey Chamberlain, PhD. "Their development of mRNA technology, which goes back several decades, has saved millions of lives."     

These discoveries have been used in more than a billion administered doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and have the potential to address a range of medical conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. Weissman shared his personal journey and ups and downs of these pioneering vaccines on ASGCT’s podcast Giants of Gene Therapy.

Dr. Karikó, a biochemist and researcher, is currently an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania as well as a senior vice president at BioNTech. She was working at the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, Hungary, before immigrating to the United States in 1985. 

Dr. Karikó began collaborating with Dr. Weissman in 1997. They published a breakthrough paper in 2005 showing that mRNA could be altered and delivered effectively into the body to activate the body's immune system. Dr. Karikó is the 13th woman to win the prize in Physiology or Medicine. 

During his keynote address at the 2022 ASGCT Annual Meeting, Dr. Weissman described the background and the mechanisms for why the mRNA lipid nanoparticle vaccine works so well.

“You don’t know how many times a week people come up to me and say ‘oh, I don’t know about the RNA vaccine. It was made in 10 months; it’s brand new,’ Dr. Weissman told attendees. “Well, RNA was identified in 1961. The first time it was injected into an animal was in 1990,” he added.

Dr. Weissman is currently the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research, Director of Vaccine Research in the Infectious Diseases Division, and Director of the Institute for RNA Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. The nucleoside-modified mRNA technology he co-created and other mRNA vaccine-related improvements were patented in 2005.  

Together, Drs. Weissman and Karikó have won numerous awards and honors, including the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2021, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Princess of Asturias Award, the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the VinFuture Grand Prize, and the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science. 

As a result of their work, several mRNA-based vaccines exist, including those targeted to Zika virus, and MERS-CoV

ASGCT’s members, elected leaders, and staff all whole-heartedly congratulate Drs. Weissman and Karikó on this incredible achievement, and thank them for their decades of hard work, service, and teaching.

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