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Nobel for mRNA Vaccine Pioneers: Karikó & Weissman's Impact



  Oct 05, 2023

Shot in the Arm: Nobel for mRNA Vaccine Pioneers


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2023 went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, and it's no surprise. Their groundbreaking work paved the way for effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, saving lives and preventing hospitalizations. This Nobel recognition aligns perfectly with the award's mission to honor discoveries that benefit humanity the most.
 
This Nobel is also a celebration of women in science, with Katalin Karikó being one of only 13 women ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine out of 225 total recipients. The broader context here is that only 62 women have won any Nobel Prize compared to 894 men.
 
The success of mRNA vaccines is a testament to the power of collaboration across sectors and unwavering scientific research. Katalin Karikó's journey with mRNA began in the 1980s when it was still a fledgling idea. She persevered despite challenges, focusing on using mRNA for therapy. Drew Weissman, an immunologist, joined her efforts, and together they overcame obstacles like delivery issues and inflammation reactions.
 
Their work, which started in 2005, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, laid the foundation for instructing human cells to produce the S protein from the virus, triggering antibody production. This breakthrough became the basis for mRNA vaccines, changing the course of history in 2019 when scientists adapted it to combat COVID-19.
 
The Nobel Prize rightfully recognizes their dedication and foresight, highlighting the immense impact of their work on global health.
 

The process of vaccine creation

 
Creating an mRNA vaccine involves several key steps:
 
Identifying Target: Scientists first identify the specific virus or disease they want to target with the vaccine. In the case of COVID-19, it's the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
 
Selecting Antigen: They choose a part of the virus as the antigen. For COVID-19, it's typically the spike protein (S protein) found on the virus's surface.
 
Creating mRNA: A small piece of genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA) is designed to carry instructions for making the chosen antigen. This mRNA is created in the lab.
 
Modifying mRNA: Scientists make some modifications to the mRNA to make it more stable and effective in instructing cells.
 
Delivery System: The modified mRNA is wrapped in lipid nanoparticles, which act as tiny delivery vehicles to protect the fragile mRNA and help it enter cells.
 
Injection: The vaccine is administered through a simple injection into the muscle. The mRNA enters human cells at the injection site.
 
Cell Instruction: Once inside the cell, the mRNA provides instructions to the cell's machinery to produce the spike protein of the virus.
 
Antibody Production: The cell starts making the spike protein, and the immune system recognizes it as foreign. This triggers the production of antibodies and an immune response.
 
Immune Memory: After the immune response, the body "remembers" how to fight the virus. If the person is exposed to the real virus in the future, their immune system can quickly respond and neutralize it.
 
Protection: The person becomes immune to the disease without ever being exposed to the actual virus, providing protection against future infections.
 
In essence, mRNA vaccines work by giving our cells a set of instructions to produce a harmless part of the virus, which then trains our immune system to recognize and fight the virus if we encounter it later.


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