Bold Business Logo
Close this search box.

Honoring the Science Behind the COVID Vaccine – The 2023 Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine

2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine for COVID vaccine

(Editor’s note: Welcome to Bold’s series on the Nobel Prize, its winners, and their contributions. Read up on who we think should’ve won a Nobel Prize–but didn’t–here.)

In selecting each year’s Nobel Prize winners, the committee must abide by the instructions provided in Alfred Nobel’s will. Thus, in selecting the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine, the committee needed to honor those contributing the greatest benefit to humankind. Their decision, recently announced, involved two scientists, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman. Though these brilliant individuals aren’t quite household names, it can be said they saved millions during the pandemic. And this all occurred because of their work on mRNA vaccines. Labelled as COVID-19 vaccine pioneers, we have them to thank for rapidly ending the pandemic. Without their work, vaccine development and a reopening of society would have months if not years longer.

COVID vaccine development 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine
The 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to the developers of the COVID vaccine.

(Take a journey on the development of mRNA vaccines, courtesy of Bold.)

Once it became clear that COVID-19 was deadly, nations realized either a cure or vaccine was needed as fast as possible. As such, research and development in these areas were accelerated greatly. This has led many to believe that prior to the pandemic, mRNA vaccines weren’t a thing. But as it turns out, Kariko and Weissman had been making tremendous strides in this field since the late 1990s. And it’s a good thing they had. Their work paved the way for rapid vaccine production, which is why they are considered true COVID-19 vaccine pioneers. This is also why they are receiving the 2023 Noble Prize in Medicine this year.

“What’s important here I think is that vaccines could be developed so fast. [This was] largely due to improvements in the technology and this basic [mRNA science] discovery.” – Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, Member of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine committee

A Fortuitous Meeting of the Minds

Given their unique backgrounds, it’s quite lucky that Kariko and Weissman even met. Kariko was initially an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania starting in 1989. But she subsequently went onto serve as senior VP and head of RNA protein studies at BioNTech. She is also now a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary. In contrast, Weissman set up his vaccine research lab at the University of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine in the 1990s. Weissman was interested in vaccines, but mRNA wasn’t believed to be a viable strategy for vaccines at the time. Kariko was deeply involved in RNA studies, but likewise, had not explored vaccines in depth.

Thanks to limited copy machines at the University of Pennsylvania, the two actually met while waiting their turn. After exchanging their backgrounds and interests, it became evident a collaboration had potential. Thus, the original research into mRNA vaccines began then as these COVID-19 vaccine pioneers embarked on quite a journey. While other scientists in vaccine research had given up on mRNA as a possible solution, Kariko and Weissman persevered. It was their haphazard meeting and a combined passion that will ultimately award them the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Perhaps something is to be said about such water-cooler moments that no longer exist for remote workers!

“The award, to me, is really a victory for vaccines and the potential for vaccines to advance health and improve equity.” – Kathleen Neuzil, Vaccinology Professor and Director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, University of Maryland School of Medicine

The Key Discoveries Leading to the Award

COVID-19 vaccine pioneers giving out shots
COVID-19 vaccine pioneers won the Nobel Prize–do you agree that they were worthy?

When Kariko and Weissman began their mRNA research, they didn’t anticipate being COVID-19 vaccine pioneers. They also didn’t ever expect to win the 2023 Nobel prize in Medicine. But what they did believe is that mRNA could be used to trigger a desire immune response. mRNA is a type of RNA that encodes for various proteins using nucleic acid code sequences. Once in a cell, it provides a recipe for making specific proteins. In this regard, it was hoped that mRNA could be given to someone so their cells made a specific virus’ protein. This protein would then trigger an immune response that would subsequently protect that person from that virus. The problem was that once such a mRNA was given to someone, it was rapidly destroyed before it could work. The inflammatory reaction to it prevented it from therefore being considered as a vaccine type.

Fortunately, these COVID-19 vaccine pioneers didn’t give up on mRNA’s potential. Kariko was able to find a way to reduce the inflammatory response against mRNA when given to a person. By switching a single nucleoside (pseudo-uridine for uridine), the immune attack was much less. She and Weissman then collaborated and further advanced the technique by adding a protective lipid layer to the mRNA. This lipid layer further protected the mRNA given to the person and facilitated its entry into the person’s cells. And once inside, it could instruct that cell to make a specific protein. In terms of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccines instruct cells to make only the “spike” protein on the virus. Once it is made, the person’s immune system develops antibodies to it. Should that person then later be exposed to COVID-19, the immune system is already to launch an attack. This is the foundational work that awarded them the 2023 Nobel prize in Medicine.

 “[mRNA vaccines] can also be used to treat any disease that is due to a malfunctioning protein as it allows patients produce their own therapeutic proteins. Nobel Prizes with such a high impact on society are rare and occur only once in 25 or 50 years.” – Niek Sanders, Principal investigator at Ghent University’s Laboratory of Gene Therapy in Belgium

The Future Impact of Their Work

Because of Kariko’s and Weissman’s work as COVID-19 vaccine pioneers, mRNA vaccines have been administered millions of times. The impact their foundational work had on the rapid development and employment of a pandemic solution cannot be overemphasized. This is why these two incredible scientists are very deserving of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine. But in addition to this, the future vaccines that will be developed from their discoveries has even greater potential. mRNA vaccines could soon be developed not only for all types of infections but against cancers as well. And mRNA therapies could begin to address development disorder due to specific protein deficiencies. All in all, we will owe Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman a depth of gratitude before all is done.

a bunch of vials of COVID vaccine
Anyone who helps save millions of lives deserves special recognition.

What is the Broadband Equity Access Deployment (BEADs) Program? Find out in this Bold explainer!

Don't miss out!

The Bold Wire delivers our latest global news, exclusive top stories, career
opportunities and more.

Thank you for subscribing!