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October 02, 2023

Penn scientists receive Nobel Prize for research that led to COVID-19 vaccines

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman spent decades researching and manipulating messenger RNA for use in immunizations

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Penn scientists Nobel prize Wei Xuechao/Xinhua/Sipa USA

Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman received a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their research into mRNA vaccines, which paved the way for COVID-19 immunizations. The award was announced in a ceremony in Stockholm, shown above.

University of Pennsylvania medical school professors Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their pioneering mRNA research, which led to the creation of the world's first COVID-19 vaccines.

The Nobel Prize committee announced the winners in Stockholm on Monday, citing Karikó and Weissman's "groundbreaking findings, which have fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system." The pair, the committee continued, "contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times."

Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine, left Hungary in 1985 to continue her research into messenger RNA, which directs the body to create proteins. After settling in Philadelphia, she met and began collaborating with Weissman, a professor of vaccine research also at Penn's medical school. Together, they studied mRNA as a tool to fight disease. By encoding their own mRNA molecules with instructions for the immune system and then injecting the formulation into a subject, Karikó and Weissman found that they could essentially tell the body how to attack an infection. No samples of the targeted virus were required, bucking centuries of medical practice.

Their discovery was originally published in a 2005 paper to little fanfare. But it eventually formed the basis of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations against COVID-19, which became available in the U.S. in late 2020.

The Nobel Prize includes a grant of roughly $1 million to be split between the pair, who received word early Monday morning.

Karikó said she was asleep in her Abington Township home when the call came in, and she thought it was a joke. The new Nobel laureate struggled for much of her career to secure reliable funding or positions for her research, at one point leaving the academic world for BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer on its COVID-19 vaccine.

"You have to focus on things that you can change," she told the Nobel Prize committee. "Many young ones are giving up because they can see that their friends or their colleagues are advancing, and it seems that they do less and somehow, they get higher salary and promoted... If you notice that then you already took away your attention (on) what you can change."

Weissman recalled years of late-night emails and conversations about new breakthroughs "before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared."

"It was always a dream but I never imagined it would happen," he said.

With their award, Karikó and Weissman are now the 28th and 29th Nobel winners affiliated with Penn. Gregg L. Semenza, who completed his doctoral studies at the university, received the prize in 2019 for his research into how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.

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