Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko and U.S. colleague Drew Weissman, who met in line for a photocopier before making mRNA molecule discoveries that paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines, won the 2023 Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday.
“The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the Swedish award-giving body said in the latest accolade for the pair.
The prize, among the most prestigious in the scientific world, was selected by the Nobel Assembly of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute medical university and comes with 11 million Swedish crowns (about $1 million) to share between them.
Kariko, a former senior vice president and head of RNA protein replacement at German biotech firm BioNTech, is a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary and adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Co-winner Weissman, a professor in vaccine research also at Pennsylvania, said it was a “lifetime dream” to win and recalled working intensely with Kariko – including middle-of-the-night emails as they both suffered disturbed sleep.
“For the 20 years that we worked together, before anybody knew what RNA is or cared, it was the two of us, literally, side by side at a bench working together, talking and discussing new data,” he said in a recording on the Nobel website.
The two laureates in 2005 jointly developed so-called nucleoside base modifications, which stop the immune system from launching an inflammatory attack against lab-made mRNA, previously seen as a major hurdle against any therapeutic use of the technology.
BioNTech, whose Germany-traded shares were up 3.8%, praised Kariko and Weissman for their passion and persistence.
In June, BioNTech said that about 1.5 billion people across the world had received its mRNA shot, co-developed with Pfizer. It was the most widely-used shot in the West.