When mankind faces the most severe threat in modern health history, these two scientists’ “epoch-making scientific research results” have enabled the development of a new coronavirus vaccine to reach an unprecedented speed.
This was when the Nobel Committee in Stockholm, Sweden, announced on October 2, 2023, that the Physiology or Medicine Prize would be awarded to Hungarian female scientist Katalin Karikó and American scientist Drew Weissman evaluation of.
For the past few decades, mRNA vaccines were considered unfeasible because injecting the mRNA would induce an unnecessary immune response, causing the mRNA to be immediately degraded. However, the scientific duo succeeded in overcoming obstacles and “discovered nucleotide base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines.”
Ultimately, mRNA vaccines came into play in the COVID-19 pandemic, being provided to hundreds of millions of people and saving countless lives.
mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) is like the “middleman” between DNA and proteins – it is responsible for transmitting information. In theory, if you can control the production of mRNA and tell it which proteins to make, you can make your own “drugs” , thereby creating a brand new therapy.
This is considered a relatively advanced mechanism by the academic community, and many scientists have devoted themselves to exploring it since the 1960s. However, after more than 50 years of use, no results were obtained. The experiment was stuck in a dilemma – the human immune system can always scan the incoming mRNA in time and then destroy it, rendering it useless. Chance.
In animal experiments, there have been cases where the injection of mRNA triggered a severe natural immune response in the body, resulting in the death of the test animals.
Two Nobel Prize winners discovered a way to modify the mRNA and rearrange the chemical bonds on uridine, so that the synthetic mRNA can avoid the attack of the immune system and can be safely injected into human cells.
Weisman writes that in 2005, Katrin Carrico and I invented a way to modify mRNA molecules so that they would not cause dangerous inflammation when injected into animal tissue.
In 2017, Norbert Pardi and I showed that modified mRNA, carried into human cells by lipid nanoparticles, protects the mRNA from being broken down by the body and prompts the immune system to produce antibodies, which is stronger than the immune system. itself more effectively neutralizes invading viruses.
Because this set of “camouflage methods” removed the biggest technical obstacle, the new coronavirus mRNA vaccine was quickly developed and applied during the new coronavirus epidemic, so that mankind did not lose too badly in this huge crisis in the history of health. .
To trigger an immune response, traditional attenuated or inactivated vaccines inject a weakened or inactivated version of the virus into the body. But mRNA vaccines are different. They just tell cells how to make a certain protein, or even protein fragments, in order for the body’s immune system to respond.
Traditional vaccine research and development cycles are long and R&D investment is high, making it difficult to quickly meet the demand for vaccines against pandemic diseases. After three years of fighting the epidemic, people can clearly see that the virus mutates so fast that new names will be heard almost every few months. It is too passive to update the inactivated vaccine after the mutated virus. The mRNA vaccine is updated much faster, so in theory it is more suitable to fight against viruses that are constantly mutating.
This time, the mRNA vaccine has also fully demonstrated its advantages. It is easy to design, fast to produce, low cost, can induce cellular immunity and humoral immunity, and does not interact with genomic DNA. That is, once a reliable manufacturing facility is established for an mRNA vaccine, it can quickly switch to production of a new vaccine or drug, unlike protein or monoclonal facilities, which must be redesigned from scratch for the production of each new therapy. .
This has inspired researchers, companies and government laboratories to explore mRNA therapeutics against many infectious diseases, including influenza, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, norovirus, rabies, malaria, tuberculosis, dengue fever, Zika virus, HIV, Hepatitis C and the entire coronavirus family.
mRNA therapy will become one of mankind’s advanced weapons against various diseases, from autoimmune diseases to cancer, all of which are expected to be overcome by this new therapy.
Behind the fight to fame
Biotechnology companies Moderna of the United States and BioNTech of Germany and other related mRNA vaccine companies have shone brightly in the COVID-19 epidemic and become well-known companies in the world. Back in 2013, BioNTech hired Catalin as senior vice president to help oversee its mRNA work. At that time, this small company didn’t even have its own website.
Katalin, 68, also serves as a professor at the University of Szeged and a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. Weisman was doing research with Katalin at the University of Pennsylvania.
The University of Szeged is also Katalin’s alma mater. She received her PhD here in 1978 and then entered the Szeged Biological Research Center to work on mRNA research, which became her lifelong obsession.
However, in 1985, the laboratory where Katalin worked lost its funding and, at the age of 30, she was fired. So, the troubled Katalin and her family went to the United States that same year. However, her scientific research career in the United States was not smooth either. She repeatedly ran into obstacles and her life was very difficult for a time.
It wasn’t until 1997 that Catalin met her scientific research partner Weisman in front of the public copier at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. At that time, Weisman was developing a vaccine against HIV at the University of Pennsylvania, but failed repeatedly. Katalin suggested that he try mRNA technology. So Weisman invited her to his laboratory to collaborate on the development of an mRNA vaccine.
This pair of scientific research partners not only collaborated in the laboratory, but also co-founded a company in 2006. Katalin served as the CEO of the company, and the company received US$900,000 in government funding. However, in 2010, the University of Pennsylvania sold Catalin and Weisman’s patents, causing the startup to die before it could enter clinical programs.
However, it is significant that the two scientists persisted in the research. Starting in 2005, Catalin and Weismann published a series of papers describing their mRNA. Derek Rossi, one of the founders of Moderna, was so impressed after reading these papers that he took the lead in establishing the company Moderna – the name of Moderna comes from the “Mode” and “Mode” in the English word “modified”. “RNA” is combined.
In fact, before the COVID-19 pandemic, even the scientific community’s attitude towards mRNA technology was unclear. Everyone thought it was a smart concept, but there was no guarantee that it would be realized. It can be said that Moderna’s advancement of clinical trials has somehow convinced investors and multinational drug manufacturers that this technology has great potential.
When Swedish Radio contacted Katalin herself, the Nobel Prize winner in medicine was in disbelief at the news. After confirming that the news was true, Katalin’s first thought was her deceased mother. She said that her mother began to pay attention to the results of the Nobel Prize ten years ago, “even though I was not even a professor at that time.”
Hungary, with a population of less than 10 million, has produced 15 Nobel Prize winners. When it comes to the contributions of Hungarians, you can see them everywhere: Rubik’s Cube, contact lenses, ballpoint pens, vitamin C, Microsoft operating software, LEONAR3DO technology, hand hygiene scanners, etc. Now, we have to add a new coronavirus mRNA vaccine to this list.
Katarin Carrico is the 13th female scientist to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Like her famous predecessor Marie Curie, Katalin spent most of her day in the laboratory. Her husband once calculated that the endless work meant that her hourly salary was about $1.
”The lack of support and funding is the biggest obstacle we encountered.” Weisman said in an interview. “The reason I persist is that I firmly believe that RNA has great potential.” When Weisman received a congratulatory call
, At first, I thought the so-called news about winning the award was someone making fun of him. He told Swedish radio that he would take the whole family out for a nice dinner and then get back to work. He said that he is not a person who likes to hold parties.
Since the first award in 1901, a total of 225 people have won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Different from previous years, this year the Nobel Foundation has increased the prize money for each award by 1 million Swedish kronor, increasing the amount of the prize to 11 million kronor, which is approximately equivalent to RMB 7.34 million.