Scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries enabling the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the award-giving body said on Monday. The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, is selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden's Karolinska Institute Medical University and also comes with 11 million Swedish crowns (about $1 million).
"The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19," the body said.
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 adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. Weissman a Jewish American, is a professor in vaccine research at the Perelman School.
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. Together with Weissman, she showed in 2005 that adjustments to nucleosides, the molecular letters that write the mRNA's genetic code, can keep the mRNA under the immune system's radar.
"So this year's Nobel Prize recognizes their basic science discovery that fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with the immune system and had a major impact on society during the recent pandemic," said Rickard Sandberg, member of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute.
They will receive 10 million Swedish Krowns, the equivalent of $900,000. "I've reached both and they were very happy. It was great to talk to them," the secretary of the judge's panel said. "This time, I asked if the prize came as a surprise because I suspected it would not but Kataline said she was stunned. Drewe was the same. He was grateful. I spoke to him moments before the announcement.
The medicine prize kicks off this year's awards with the remaining five to be unveiled in the coming days. The prizes, first handed out in 1901, were created by Swedish dynamite inventor and wealthy businessman Alfred Nobel, and are awarded for achievements in science, literature and peace, and in later years also for economics.
The Swedish king will present the prizes at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death, followed by a lavish banquet at city hall.
Last year's medicine prize went to Swede Svante Paabo 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.