The 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to two individuals, Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó and American physician-scientist Drew Weissman. They received the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking work in the field of mRNA (messenger RNA) technology, which paved the way for the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.
1. What is mRNA?
mRNA stands for messenger RNA. It's a type of molecule that carries instructions from our DNA to a cell's cytoplasm, where these instructions are used to produce proteins.
2. The Problem:
In the late 1980s, scientists realized that mRNA could potentially be used to create a new type of vaccine. The idea was to inject modified mRNA into the body, which would instruct cells to produce a specific protein, triggering the immune system to respond to it. This protein could be a part of a virus, like the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19).
3. The Challenge:
However, there were hurdles to overcome. The synthetic mRNA needed to survive inside the body and enter cells without being rejected by the immune system.
4. The Research:
Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman began working together in the late 1990s. They conducted research until 2004, focusing on how to deliver mRNA into the body and get the immune system to respond to it.
5. The Breakthrough:
In 2005, they made a crucial discovery. They found that by modifying certain parts of the synthetic mRNA, they could make it more effective. The immune system would recognize it as part of the body's own mRNA and not as a foreign substance to be eliminated.
6. Impact on Vaccines:
Their research laid the foundation for using mRNA to create a new type of vaccine. Fast forward to 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, mRNA vaccines became instrumental in lowering the death toll. These vaccines helped the immune system recognize and respond to the spike protein of the virus.
7. Nobel Prize Recognition:
The Nobel Prize was awarded to Dr. Karikó and Dr. Weissman in 2023 for their contributions to this groundbreaking technology, which played a crucial role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
In summary, these two scientists found a way to use modified mRNA to create vaccines that effectively train the immune system to respond to specific proteins, like the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus. Their work has been instrumental in the development of mRNA vaccines, making them a critical tool in the fight against the pandemic.