Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
In a story of scientific perseverance and serendipity, two researchers who spent decades pioneering messenger RNA technology have been awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their role in rapidly developing the mRNA vaccines that have saved countless lives in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman began working together on mRNA in the late 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, mRNA's therapeutic potential was dismissed by most in the scientific community. But Karikó was undeterred, driven by an unwavering belief that mRNA could one day revolutionize medicine. Against the odds, she and Weissman solved several key technical problems holding mRNA back, engineering a modified form of mRNA that didn't provoke an immune response. This discovery, published in a landmark 2005 paper, was the catalyst that enabled today's mRNA vaccines.
When COVID-19 emerged, BioNTech seized on Karikó and Weissman's mRNA breakthrough to develop the Pfizer vaccine in record time. Similarly, Moderna leveraged the technology to produce its shot. Almost overnight, the previously obscure field of mRNA therapeutics became a household name, with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines racing to the frontlines of the pandemic. Their 95% efficacy stunned the medical community and shattered all expectations for a first-generation vaccine.
For Weissman, receiving the Nobel Prize is the culmination of a career spent demystifying mRNA. But for Karikó, the honor caps a heroic journey fighting institutional neglect, sexism and years in the scientific wilderness. Originally from rural Hungary, Karikó moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s, joining Weissman at Penn. But despite her groundbreaking mRNA research, she was repeatedly refused tenure while Weissman rose through the ranks.
Unbowed, Karikó took her mRNA dreams to BioNTech, where she led RNA protein replacement research. When COVID-19 arrived, her vision and gumption powered mRNA's coming-of-age party. Some 40 years and thousands of rejected grant applications later, Karikó's mRNA miracle has saved millions of lives, catalyzed a new generation of vaccines, and earned two steadfast scientists their place in medical history.