The Path To A Nobel: The Resilient Journey of the 2023 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine

The Path To A Nobel: The Resilient Journey of the 2023 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine

Last week, in Stockholm, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their game-changing work on mRNA vaccinations. Thanks to their breakthroughs, we now have COVID vaccines that made a real impact in the fight against the pandemic.

Dr Kariko became the 13th woman to win this prestigious prize.

The award is a testament to not only their scientific breakthrough but also the importance of scientific collaboration and resilience in the face of adversity. As stated in her Nobel Prize banquet speech, both scientists met by a “Xerox machine in the hallway of a Medical School building at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997”. A meeting which changed our understanding of mRNA.

The Nobel Prize is one of the most prestigious honours and symbolises the highest level of achievement and recognition. Young aspiring scientists dream of the day they get the late-night call from the selection committee, to be informed that they have received a Nobel Prize and become a footnote in history.

What isn't publicised however, is how much collaboration and resilience is needed during a scientific career to receive a Nobel Prize.

Dr Kariko’s and Dr Weissman’s career journeys to the prize are a testament to that. Dr Kariko went many years without funding or even a permanent academic position. To keep her research work going, she partnered with senior scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, who enabled her to continue her work. Ultimately, she was unable to get grants and thus was forced into retirement from the university over ten years ago.

However, this was not the first time she faced funding issues. She started her work into the modification of RNA during her PhD. She believed that modifying RNA could lead to new avenues of RNA-based therapies. She saw how RNA, a molecule complementary to DNA which are the building blocks of life, had the potential to be modified to become a therapy for multiple different conditions. After graduating with a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Szeged, she embarked in a research career at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Due to funding issues however, Dr Kariko decided to relocate to the US where she had received an invitation to join Temple University in Philadelphia in 1985. She would then eventually transfer to the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr Weissman worked under Dr Anthony Fauci during his fellowship in Immunology at the National Institutes of Health, with a focus on infectious diseases. In 1997, he moved to the University of Pennsylvania to start his career to study RNA and innate immune system biology. During this time, mRNA research was very popular but deemed radical and risky. This is because RNA methods require using a virus's genetic material to trigger the human body to create proteins and fight the virus. So when Drs Kariko and Weissman eventually met at the photocopier, they both bonded and sympathised about the lack of funding into RNA research.

At this time, Dr Kariko was working on developing medical treatments for cerebral conditions. Through further conversations with Dr Weissman, she began to see how her work and knowledge as a biochemist on RNA could apply to vaccine creation. This started their collaboration on developing RNA technology for vaccines, and Dr Weissman's support was vital in helping Dr Kariko continue her research. Together they began to make progress, solving each issue in the possible vaccine method, one at a time.

For many years after, their experiments were met with unsuccessful outcomes. That was, until they were able to show that mRNA was able to be taken up by cells without triggering an immune response. But even after their success and being able to recreate the outcome and write their 2005 paper, no prominent journal accepted their paper. They did manage to get accepted by one smaller journal publisher.

Their 2005 paper, ‘Suppression of RNA recognition by Toll-like receptors: the impact of nucleoside modification and the evolutionary origin of RNA’ changed our understanding of the relationship between the immune system and mRNA.

Few scientists were convinced of the new methodology of vaccination, but two biotech companies saw the potential.

When the pandemic emerged, Drs Kariko and Weissman’s discovery made it possible for the creation of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and Moderna vaccine, which saved millions of lives across the globe.

Since 1901, 227 people have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, of which Dr Kariko is the 13th woman, and the first since 2015. Women are largely underrepresented in the scientific fields and even more so within scientific awards. Dr Kariko’s career journey and limited grants shows that being a top scientist is more than just awards or funding.

To young scientists, Drs Kariko’s and Weissman’s Nobel Prize win demonstrates how important collaboration is within the scientific community.

Creativity and collaboration synergise in science, fostering innovative breakthroughs through the collective exchange of diverse ideas and expertise. In this case, we have seen how a biochemist and immunologist came together to change the way we make vaccines. Nonetheless it was not without its many challenges.

Scientists are faced with many different barriers that hinder success in science. The quest to become a top scientist is not an easy one, let alone one that can be defined simply by an award or funding. At Zeki, our goal is to comprehensively assess scientific talent by considering multiple dimensions and various factors of achievement and excellence, with the aim of recognising and celebrating outstanding individuals who may not have been traditionally acknowledged.

Featured image credit: © Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Nanaka Adachi.

LinkedIn share iconTwitter share iconFacebook share icon

Explore more from Zeki

Who we are
Learn More
What we do
Learn More
Our Story
Learn More