SpicyIP Tidbit: 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology for Base Modifications in mRNA Vaccines

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman; pics as taken from their wiki pages here and here

SpicyIP Intern Tejaswini Kaushal brings us a quick tidbit on the new Nobel Prize winners in Physiology. Read on for more! Tejaswini’s previous posts can be viewed here

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have become the joint recipients of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology for their discoveries related to nucleoside base modifications in mRNA that have so-remarkably paved the way for the development of highly effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19. Aside from the prestige, the award comes with a prize of $1 million, which will be given to them along with medals in the ceremony in December. Previously on this blog, the aspect of patentability of mRNA vaccine and related issues have been beautifully discussed here, here, here, and here.

(As a tangential but relevant sidenote, this news comes in time to provide a sharp contrast to the recent plans of scrapping nearly 300 science awards (see here), as well as contrast to CSIR Director General’s recent remarks of “why do scientists need cash prizes” with regard to the scrapping of cash prizes for the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award (see here). On a more positive note however, the Tamil Nadu government awarded ₹25 lakh to nine ISRO scientists in recognition of their outstanding service to the nation, a much-welcomed step in the direction of showing appreciation as well as incentives for scientists for their contributions).

Back to the mRNA news – the research is revolutionary since it has significantly reduced the time for the preparation of the vaccine, illustrated by the COVID-19 vaccine, acclaimed as the fastest vaccine in history.  Rapid vaccine production in response to outbreaks was hindered primarily by processes that used whole viruses, viral components, or carrier viruses and required large-scale cell culture. 

As per the Press Release:

“The discoveries by the two Nobel Laureates were critical for developing effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 during the pandemic that began in early 2020. Through their groundbreaking findings, which have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system, the laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times.” 

As it goes on to explain, Karikó and Weissman saw the potential of using mRNA for vaccines for COVID-19 despite initial challenges posed by instability and inflammatory reactions. Their breakthrough came when they realized that the inflammation was caused due to dendritic cells recognizing in vitro transcribed mRNA as foreign as there was an absence of chemical modifications in the mRNA’s bases. They introduced base modifications to reduce inflammatory responses and increase cell protein production, all the while revolutionizing humanity’s understanding of mRNA’s interaction with the immune system.

Their discoveries laid the foundation for developing mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, which had a transformative impact during one of our most significant health crises in the last century. This discovery holds immense potential not only for mRNA technology, not only for vaccines against other infectious diseases, but also for delivering therapeutic proteins and treating certain types of cancer. Undoubtedly, this development is set to catalyze advancements in the healthcare sector for years ahead.  Additionally, as quoted in Nature, Karikó points out that the possibilities are limitless, and though the vaccine put mRNA on the map, the technology’s potential impact is far and wide.

For those curious, like I was, it looks like Nobel Prizes do have a history of being awarded towards those who have made significant public health impacts! 

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