Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, the pioneering researchers at the University of Pennsylvania

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Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, the pioneering researchers at the University of Pennsylvania whose groundbreaking work with messenger RNA (mRNA) led to the development of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, have been honored with the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their foundational discoveries in mRNA modification and delivery have revolutionized the field of therapeutics and have had an extraordinary impact on global public health by providing an effective tool in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in the same school, have become the 28th and 29th Nobel laureates associated with the University of Pennsylvania. Notably, nine previous Nobel laureates with ties to the university have received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Their remarkable journey began in the late 1990s when they serendipitously crossed paths while photocopying research papers. This chance meeting set the stage for their collaborative exploration of mRNA’s therapeutic potential. In 2005, they made a pivotal breakthrough: demonstrating that mRNA could be modified and effectively delivered into the body to activate the immune system’s protective response. Their work laid the foundation for mRNA-based vaccines, which stimulate a robust immune reaction, including the production of high levels of antibodies targeted against specific infectious diseases. Importantly, these vaccines do not require the introduction of live or attenuated viruses.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, the significance of Karikó and Weissman’s research became glaringly evident. Pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, harnessed their technology to swiftly develop and deploy highly effective vaccines, offering protection against severe illness and mortality from the virus. In the United States alone, mRNA vaccines have accounted for more than 655 million doses administered since their availability in December 2020.

Penn President Liz Magill praised Karikó and Weissman as exceptional researchers who epitomize scientific inspiration and dedication. She commended their tireless commitment to unlocking the potential of mRNA as a therapeutic platform, noting that they remain committed to further advancing their field. Magill expressed immense pride in the groundbreaking achievements of the Penn community and their well-deserved recognition.

J. Larry Jameson, the executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, underscored the transformative impact of Karikó and Weissman’s work during the unprecedented public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. He highlighted their instrumental role in saving countless lives and providing a path out of the pandemic. Additionally, their innovative approach is now being explored for the treatment of other diseases and conditions. Jameson acknowledged that, more than 15 years after their initial partnership, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have left an indelible mark on the field of medicine.

The Nobel Foundation has honored individuals whose groundbreaking contributions have greatly benefited humanity since 1901. These prestigious awards recognize outstanding achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economics. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which Karikó has earned, has been presented to only 225 individuals to date. Remarkably, Karikó, who is also a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary, is just the 61st woman in history to be granted the title of Nobel Laureate.

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