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Friday, July 19, 2024

Covid-19 vaccine scientists win Nobel Prize

The mRNA technology provided a method to fight “one of the greats threats to human health in modern times,” the committee said

Two scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for their pioneering research that led to the development of mRNA vaccines, which helped curb the spread of Covid-19, it was announced early on Monday in Stockholm, Sweden.

Dr. Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman will share the prize almost two decades after first publishing a 2005 paper examining the potential benefits of mRNA technology. Their research received little attention at the time but the Nobel Prize committee praised the scientists’ “groundbreaking findings,” which they said “fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system.”

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“The laureates contributed to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health in modern times,” the committee said in a statement on Monday.

Kariko and Weissman were both said to be “overwhelmed” by the news when they were notified by telephone of their win.

Traditional vaccine technology uses dead or weakened samples from a source bacterium or virus to prepare a person’s immune system to recognize and attack threats. mRNA, by comparison, prompts cells to make a protein based on a single strand of genetic code.

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In the case of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, it leads to cells producing the virus’ spike protein, which the immune system subsequently recognizes as foreign, preparing it to fight off a future infection. The Covid-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech were both based on mRNA technology.

“The impressive flexibility and speed with which mRNA vaccines can be developed pave the way for using the new platform also for vaccines against other infectious diseases,” the Nobel Prize committee said.

Rickard Sandberg, one of the members of the Nobel Prize in Medicine committee, added on Monday that COVID-19 vaccines had been administered over 13 billion times since the start of the pandemic. He said the vaccines “have saved millions of lives, prevented severe Covid-19, reduced the overall disease burden and enabled societies to open up again.”

The same mRNA research is now being used to combat other diseases, including cancer.

However, the widespread rollout of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines also led to “rare occurrences of myocarditis [inflammation of the heart tissue] following the second injection of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna” vaccines in teens and young adults, the Johns Hopkins Medicine website notes. It adds that the majority of these cases were “mild and cleared up on their own.”

Hungarian-American biochemist Kariko and American physician Weismann are both professors at the University of Pennsylvania. The award comes with a monetary prize of $1 million. Last year’s prize was won by Swedish scientist Svante Paabo for research into Neanderthal DNA, which led to discoveries in our immune system, and also revealed a specific vulnerability humans have to severe cases of Covid-19.