‘Dogged Dedication’ Recognized
Grantees Karikó, Weissman Awarded 2023 Nobel Prize
NIH grantees Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman were jointly awarded the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet on Oct. 2 for “discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against Covid-19.”
Announcing the prize, the Assembly said, “The discoveries…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.”
A senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, a professor at University of Szeged in her native Hungary and an adjunct professor at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó joined Perelman in 1989 and began collaborating with Weissman in 1997.
She received her bachelor’s degree in biology in 1978 and her doctorate in biochemistry in 1982 from Szeged. She was working at the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged before immigrating to the United States in 1985.
Born in Lexington, Mass., Weissman, an immunologist, is the Roberts family professor in vaccine research at Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovations. He earned his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Boston University in 1987. He did clinical training at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School and completed a fellowship at NIH in the lab of Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In 1997, Weissman established his research group at Perelman.
NIH Acting Director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, acknowledging the challenges involved in the research that led to the prize, congratulated the newest NIH-supported Nobel pair in a recent blog.
“I’d like to thank them for their persistence in pursuing their investigations,” he noted. “While the lifesaving benefits of mRNA vaccines are now clearly realized, Karikó and Weissman’s breakthrough finding in 2005 was not fully appreciated at the time as to why it would be significant.
“However,” Tabak continued, “their dogged dedication to gaining a better understanding of how RNA interacts with the immune system underscores the often-underappreciated importance of incremental research. Following where the science leads through step-by-step investigations often doesn’t appear to be flashy, but it can end up leading to major advances.”
The 2023 Nobel earned by these two grantees, Tabak concluded, “is a tribute to all scientists who do the painstaking work of trying to understand how things work. Many of the tools we have today to better prevent and treat diseases would not have been possible without the brilliance, tenacity and grit of researchers like Karikó and Weissman.”
Karikó has received funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Weissman’s research has been supported by NIAID, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and NHLBI.
To date, 171 scientists either at NIH or whose research is supported by NIH funds have been the sole or shared recipients of 102 Nobel Prizes.