Messenger RNA Marvels: Nobel Prize Honors Pioneers of Revolutionary Vaccines

The Karolinska Institute in Sweden made a significant announcement on Monday, revealing the recipients of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology as Prof. Kathleen Crico and Prof. Drew Weissman. Their groundbreaking research paved the way for mRNA vaccines, which have become the linchpin of COVID-19 vaccination efforts. To demystify this innovative approach, Dr. Gal Chaimovich from the Davidson Institute offers valuable insights.

Unlike traditional vaccines that introduce weakened or killed viruses, or their proteins, into the body to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines take a different approach. Dr. Chaimovich explains, “The concept of an mRNA vaccine eliminates the need to inject viruses or viral proteins. Instead, messenger RNA, essentially a copy of the gene containing instructions for the virus’s protein production, is injected. This mRNA instructs cells to produce the virus’s protein, triggering an immune response.”

The breakthrough initiated by Weissman and Crico dates back to 1990 when researchers demonstrated the possibility of injecting mRNA into mice, prompting their cells to produce the specified protein. However, the challenge arose as natural mRNA, in its typical form, breaks down quickly and activates cellular defense mechanisms, causing local inflammation but not the desired immune response.

In 2005, Weissman and Crico addressed this challenge. Dr. Chaimovich details, “RNA consists of four bases, and the order of these bases dictates the amino acid sequence for protein assembly. Recognizing that mammalian cells undergo chemical changes in these bases during their RNA production, the researchers made a crucial alteration. They substituted one base, uridine, with a similar molecule called pseudouridine. This modification preserved the RNA’s information-encoding capacity but altered the body’s response, preventing inflammation activation. Simultaneously, the modified RNA remained stable, ensuring sufficient protein production to activate the immune response.”

This transformative technology, as exemplified by COVID-19 vaccines, enables the rapid development of safe and effective vaccines against novel pathogens. Dr. Chaimovich notes, “Companies like Pfizer and Moderna are now leveraging RNA vaccines for various diseases, extending their application to viral infections and even cancer.” The Nobel recognition underscores the paradigm shift brought about by Weissman and Crico, charting a new course in vaccine development.

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