This year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, whose discoveries paved the way for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines.
The pair, who had been tipped as favourites, were honoured “for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against Covid-19“, the jury said.
“The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” it added.
mRNA vaccines differ from traditional vaccines, which use a weakened virus or a key piece of the virus' protein, by providing the genetic molecules that tell cells what proteins to make. The process simulates an infection, training the immune system for when it encounters the real virus.
The idea was first demonstrated in 1990. But it was not until the mid-2000s that Dr Weissman and Dr Kariko developed a technique to control a dangerous inflammatory response seen in animals exposed to these molecules, opening the way to develop safe human vaccines.
Dr Kariko was senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at BioNTech until 2022 and has since acted as an adviser to the company. She is also a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Dr Weissman is a professor of vaccine research at the Perelman School.
Dr Kariko found a way to prevent the immune system from launching an inflammatory reaction against lab-made mRNA, previously seen as a major hurdle against any therapeutic use of mRNA.
The pair have previously won a host of awards for their research, including the prestigious Lasker Award in 2021, often seen as a precursor to the Nobel.
The medicine prize is the first in this year's awards, with the remaining five set to be unveiled in the coming days.
Last year's prize in medicine was won by Svante Paabo, a Swedish geneticist, 67, for sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of present-day humans, and for discovering a previously unknown human relative, the Denisovans.
Other past winners include Alexander Fleming, who shared the 1945 prize for the discovery of penicillin, and Karl Landsteiner in 1930 for his discovery of human blood groups.
The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, is selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden's Karolinska Institute. It includes a monetary prize of about $1 million.