The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to the ‘scientific heroes’ that developed the technology that led to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.
Professors Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman will share the prize for their contributions.
Trinity Professor Luke O’Neill described Katalin Karikó as a “scientific hero”.
“She came from Hungary, her father was a butcher, she got into science for some reason and went to America in 1985,” he told The Pat Kenny Show.
“At that time, you couldn’t' really go to America from Hungary - the max currency you could bring was $100, [Prof Karikó] sewed $1,200 into her daughter’s teddy bear.”
Beginning her scientific work in America, Prof Karikó began experimenting with ribonucleic acid (RNA) to develop a new vaccine.
“She had a really tough time,” Prof O’Neill said.
“She had her grants rejected, she moved from lab to lab, but she stuck at it.
“Her husband at one point said with the time she was spending on the RNA vaccine, she was getting a dollar an hour for it.”
Developing the vaccine
Eventually Prof Karikó met Prof Weissman by a photocopier, and the pair began working together to develop an RNA vaccine.
“The problem was RNA can be quite irritating to the body and they knew this – this is why she went from lab to lab,” Prof O’Neill said.
“Then she realised natural RNA has something called pseudouridine and she realised she could use the pseudouridine in the RNA and make it less irritating.
“She basically made RNA a safe thing and now, lo and behold, RNA goes in, you get a big immune response, and it triggers a defence.
Profs Karikó and Weissman published their report in 2005, but no drug companies would take on their findings – until the COVID-19 pandemic started, and Moderna realised the importance of the RNA vaccine.
“They knew RNA was quicker to make than a regular vaccine,” Prof O’Neill said.
“The flu vaccine is grown in chicken eggs – how could we make a billion doses?”
Prof O’Neill said Profs Karikó and Weissman are true Nobel Prize winners – praising the foresight that led to the creation of the mRNA vaccine.
“It’s the best of the Nobel Prize – someone had an idea that nobody had before,” he said.
“Here they saved millions of lives.”
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