Good mRNA! A Nobel breakthrough story

Immunologist Drew Weissman and biochemist Katalin Kariko met in the late 1990s over a photocopier at the University of Pennsylvania. The duo began investigating messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) – the single-stranded molecule that carries instructions to make protein – as a potential therapeutic. The rest is a lead up to Monday’s 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries that were critical for developing effective mRNA vaccines against Covid-19. Their groundbreaking findings have ‘fundamentally’ changed the world’s understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system.

The committee’s decision is a recognition of the central role that discovery played not only in safeguarding lives during the pandemic but also for opening the possibility of creating vaccines and therapies for other diseases such as cancer. These vaccines work by smuggling the genetic instructions for making viral proteins into our cells, enabling them to churn out large amounts of the protein and ‘teach’ the immune cells to fight the virus. A big hurdle in developing such life-saving vaccines was that the prototypes of these mRNAs led to inflammatory reactions, making them unsuitable for medical use.

Kariko and Weissman’s work remained overlooked for years, often treated with scepticism and disdain, resulting in a scarcity of funding that is so important for long-term research. The Nobel is a reminder that spectacular breakthroughs don’t come easy. They rest on decades of meticulous, often unrecognised, research. Their work also underscores the need to support scientists and their research, even when it seems that there is no commercial or practical application. Because we simply don’t know what is lurking around the corner.


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