Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman are now the 28th and 29th Nobel laureates affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two scientists behind the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Katalin Karikó, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, and Drew Weissman, MD, Ph.D., is the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research at the Perelman School of Medicine. The pair will share the prize for their discoveries involving nucleoside base transformations that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, according to The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023 press release.
The technology they developed has been given to millions of people around the world to protect them against serious COVID-19 and is now even being used to help in research for other diseases, including cancer. According to the BBC, the Nobel Prize committee said: "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."
According to CBS News, 68-year-old Karikó is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine. She and 64-year-old Weissman have known each other for decades, having first met by chance in the 90s while photocopying research papers. The two were ecstatic to hear the news with Karikó being the one to break the news to Weissman. "I was very much surprised. But I am very happy," she said, admitting that she first thought it was a prank.
"The future is just so incredible," Weissman added. "We've been thinking for years about everything that we could do with RNA, and now it's here." The two have worked together for decades, with Karikó focusing on the RNA side while Weissman dealt with the immunology. "We educated each other," she said.
Professors Karikó and Weissman are now the 28th and 29th Nobel laureates affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. The two have been described as "brilliant researchers who represent the epitome of scientific inspiration and determination." Along with their teams, they have "worked tirelessly to unlock the power of mRNA as a therapeutic platform, not knowing the way in which their work could serve to meet a big challenge the world would one day face," said Penn President Liz Magill, reports Penn Medicine News. "With the truest devotion to their field, they've already promised they will not stop here, and that is the greatest inspiration of all. Our Penn community is enormously proud of their groundbreaking achievements and this well-deserved recognition."
The Nobel Foundation has awarded prizes since 1901 to those whose breakthroughs "have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind," in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics. "The phrase Nobel Prize elicits images of individuals whose work has, without exaggeration, changed the world," added J. Larry Jameson, MD, Ph.D., executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine.
"During the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes, vaccine developers relied upon the discoveries by Dr. Weissman and Dr. Karikó, which saved innumerable lives and paved a path out of the pandemic. Now, the same approach is being tested for other diseases and conditions. More than 15 years after their visionary laboratory partnership, Kati and Drew have made an everlasting imprint on medicine," he shared.