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Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2023)
Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman
The first Nobel Prize this year is behind us. Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó and American molecular biologist Drew Weissman were recognised in the field of physiology or medicine “for their discoveries regarding the modification of nucleoside bases that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19”.
Joanna Morończyk, PhD from the Institute of Biology, Biotechnology and Environmental Protection at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia in Katowice speaks about this year’s distinction.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Doctor, can we decipher the reasoning of the Nobel Commission?
JOANNA MOROŃCZYK, PhD: The discovery of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in physiology and medicine concerned the modification of mRNA molecules (so-called messenger RNA), naturally occurring in cells, responsible for transferring genetic information to a protein sequence. Cells in all organisms constantly produce mRNA to produce proteins, but these molecules are highly unstable. Research by Katalin Karikó, PhD and Drew Weissman, PhD made it possible to obtain a stable mRNA that is more difficult to degrade in cells, and thus one that is able to trigger an immune reaction in the body. Moreover, the modified mRNA was translated more efficiently, which resulted in higher protein production in cells that accepted the mRNA. Thanks to this discovery, it was possible to develop a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. After administration of the mRNA vaccine, our cells begin to intensively produce the coronavirus protein, stimulating the body to produce antibodies, ready to attack and destroy the virus in the event of infection, i.e. the appearance of the virus in our body.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Why was this achievement deemed worthy of a Nobel Prize? How do mRNA vaccines differ from previous vaccines?
JOANNA MOROŃCZYK, PhD: Classic vaccines that have been used for many decades contain weakened or dead microorganisms that do not cause disease, but provide the body’s immunity in the event of contact with the pathogen. Examples include vaccines against polio, tuberculosis or measles. In recent years, the development of molecular biology has allowed the production of the so-called recombinant vaccines, which no longer contain whole viruses, but only their component parts, most often proteins located on the virus surface. These proteins are produced by genetically modified mammalian cells or yeast and then isolated, purified and prepared to produce vaccines. This approach has been used in the development of a vaccine against hepatitis B or human papillomavirus (HPV). However, this method is extremely expensive, inadequate in the case of rapidly mutating viruses, and completely inefficient when it is necessary to produce vaccines on a mass scale, e.g. in the face of a global pandemic. This is where the latest generation vaccines come in handy, containing only genetic information in the form of mRNA. They constitute a kind of instruction for the production of protein in the cells and tissues of the person who has received such a vaccine. The method of producing a modern mRNA-based vaccine does not require working with cell lines or the virus itself. It is only necessary to know the genetic information of the virus, which is not a big challenge nowadays.
WERONIKA CYGAN: The Nobel Committee drew attention to the use of mRNA vaccines in the fight against COVID-19. But are other uses possible?
JOANNA MOROŃCZYK, PhD: The technology of producing mRNA without cell culture has been successfully developed since the 1980s, and since then, work has also been carried out on the use of mRNA in medical products, including vaccines. However, for years the problem was obtaining stable mRNA that would not cause inflammation, as well as developing a way to deliver it to the human body. The breakthrough in research came thanks to the work of Karikó, PhD and Weissman, PhD published in 2005–2010. Almost immediately after the publication, some pharmaceutical companies began working on the practical use of the method to produce vaccines, including vaccines against the Zika virus, influenza, rabies and malaria. The challenge the world faced in the form of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic contributed to the development and testing of two mRNA-based vaccines (Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna) in a record time, for which a protective effect of 95% was recorded. It is an incredible success that less than a year after the publication of the coronavirus genomic sequence, an effective vaccine was introduced to the market, which certainly contributed to accelerating the development of population immunity, and thus shortened and alleviated the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nobel Committee appreciated this extraordinary achievement, but of course it should be remembered that vaccines and mRNA-based technology itself have enormous potential. In addition to the use of mRNA in the rapid and effective production of vaccines against infectious microorganisms that threaten humans, mRNA can be used in anticancer therapies and to deliver therapeutic proteins to the body.
WERONIKA CYGAN: The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how many people do not trust science – they avoided vaccinations, sometimes even claiming that they are harmful and dangerous to health. Can this year’s Nobel Prize be seen as somehow raising the profile of vaccinations and an attempt at increasing trust in them?
JOANNA MOROŃCZYK, PhD: Unfortunately, in many people fear of vaccinations, caused by, among others, fake news commonly found on the Internet, turned out to be stronger than the fear of the consequences of contracting COVID-19. Although it might seem that in view of such a huge triumph of science over the coronavirus pandemic, public confidence in vaccinations should increase, scientists’ research in this area is not optimistic. It turns out that, according to the European Commission report ‘State of Vaccine Confidence in the EU (2018–2022)’, the EU public’s trust in vaccinations increased in 2020 compared to the 2018 study. However, in 2022 there is a clear retreat from these attitudes. Interestingly, it was observed that the decline in trust in vaccinations is particularly visible among the youngest respondents (18–34 years old). This is a particularly unpleasant conclusion that we, as scientists and teachers, must face as we make even greater efforts in the process of educating students and communicating science. I would very much like to believe that recognising the success of developing mRNA vaccines with the Nobel Prize will contribute to increasing public trust in the safety, necessity and effectiveness of vaccinations. Certainly, the Nobel Committee’s decision was not motivated solely by an attempt to draw public attention to the important role of vaccinations, but I would treat it as the final and most important voice of the scientific world on this matter. To quote the 2021 Nobel Prize winner in physics, Giorgio Parisi: “Distrust in science is growing, and people deny the existence of COVID-19, the need for vaccinations or climate change. To solve this problem, it is very important to show how scientists do their work”. This is also the task I set for myself as a molecular biologist and academic teacher.
WERONIKA CYGAN: How do you evaluate this year’s distinction? Are we really sure enough about the effects of the vaccine and its effectiveness in the long run to award this achievement with a Nobel Prize? Isn’t that a bit too early?
JOANNA MOROŃCZYK, PhD: I received the information about the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Katalin Karikó, PhD and Drew Weissman, PhD with great joy. I believe that the researchers’ achievement fully deserves to be awarded the Nobel Prize, which is the most prestigious scientific award. It should be remembered that the technologies used to create vaccines against COVID-19 have been refined for over 30 years, and the production processes were ready at the very beginning of the pandemic. Thanks to the cooperation of scientists from all over the world, information about the coronavirus genome sequence was quickly made available, which made it possible to immediately start work on developing an mRNA vaccine. Moreover, the vaccine testing process did not omit any of the clinical trial stages that all new drugs and therapies undergo, although vaccine developers conducted several stages of research simultaneously to collect as much data as possible as quickly as possible. The research resulted in the registration of COVID-19 vaccines by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), known for its extremely strict guidelines allowing new drugs to be placed on the market, which ultimately confirmed the lack of negative impact of vaccines on health. Taking into account all the above arguments, I believe that this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was not awarded too early.
WERONIKA CYGAN: Thank you for the conversation.