The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Professors Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman for their pioneering work in the development of mRNA vaccine technology.

Their contribution played a key role in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, mRNA vaccine technology was considered experimental. However, this innovative approach has now become the cornerstone of Covid-19 vaccination efforts worldwide, administered to millions of people with unparalleled success in protecting against severe cases of the virus.

The Nobel Prize committee commended Professors Kariko and Weissman for their remarkable contributions to the rapid development of vaccines during the pandemic, highlighting the profound impact of mRNA technology on public health. Unlike traditional vaccines that use weakened viruses or bacterial fragments to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines employ a distinct approach.

Kariko and Weissman’s journey began at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, a time when mRNA research was met with scepticism and faced resistance from the scientific community. Their work initially encountered doubts from their peers and colleagues. However, they persisted in their research, gradually unravelling the potential of mRNA as a game-changing tool in vaccine development.

The traditional vaccine development process often involves cultivating and manipulating weakened forms of viruses or bacteria, a time-consuming and sometimes risky approach. In contrast, mRNA vaccines provide a safer and more versatile alternative. They work by introducing a small piece of the virus’s genetic code into the body, instructing cells to produce a harmless spike protein similar to the one found on the virus’s surface. This triggers an immune response that equips the body to recognise and combat the virus if encountered in the future.

The immune system is primed to recognise foreign proteins and mount a robust defence.

This fundamental mechanism, based on harnessing the body’s natural processes, has allowed for the rapid development of vaccines for various diseases, provided the correct genetic instructions are known.

Beyond infectious diseases, the experimental applications of mRNA technology are now being explored for training the immune system to fight cancer and other illnesses.

Scientists identify unique cancer-related proteins and create customised mRNA vaccines designed to target them.

At the heart of mRNA vaccine technology is the natural process of RNA in human bodies. RNA serves as a messenger, translating genetic instructions from DNA into the proteins essential for our body’s functioning. The genius of mRNA vaccines lies in their ability to leverage this inherent biological process.

However, the journey to harnessing mRNA was not without its challenges. One initial hurdle was producing sufficient protein without triggering harmful inflammation, a phenomenon observed in early animal studies. Overcoming these obstacles required meticulous research efforts, as well as a deep understanding of the delicate balance required to induce a strong immune response without adverse side effects.

Katalin Kariko is a professor at Szeged University in Hungary. Drew Weissman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where the seeds of their collaboration were sown in the early 1990s.