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CNN — Two pioneering scientists, Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman from the University of Pennsylvania, have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for their groundbreaking work in developing the technology behind the life-saving Covid-19 vaccines. Their breakthrough involved harnessing the power of genetic material called messenger RNA (mRNA). This discovery has opened doors for new vaccines against other infectious diseases like the flu and treatments for noninfectious diseases such as cancer. Here are the key points to know about Karikó and Weissman’s research on mRNA vaccines:
1. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a form of nucleic acid that carries information from DNA to cells, instructing them on what to do. Unlike DNA, which is present in every cell and acts as an instruction manual for life, mRNA is a temporary piece of genetic code that can create proteins or repair damage.
2. Previously, mRNA was considered too unstable to be used as a therapeutic tool. Karikó and Weissman identified a way to modify the building blocks of RNA, known as nucleotides, to trigger an immune response in our bodies.
3. Their work in understanding how to configure RNA by using modified nucleotides was crucial to the success of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19. This breakthrough will also play a vital role in the development of future RNA vaccines and RNA-based medicines.
4. Traditional vaccines use weakened or dead viruses, or purified viral pieces, to stimulate an immune response. However, developing these types of vaccines can be time-consuming, and modifications are challenging. mRNA-based vaccines, on the other hand, instruct cells to produce proteins that train the immune system to protect against specific diseases.
5. Karikó’s interest in the therapeutic potential of mRNA began during her time in grad school in Hungary and persisted despite setbacks, job losses, and skepticism. She met Weissman in 1997, and their collaboration combined her expertise in RNA biochemistry with his background in immunology, leading to their groundbreaking study published in 2005.
6. The road to using mRNA technology in vaccine form was not without obstacles, such as manufacturing mRNA in large quantities and finding an effective delivery method into cells. However, their foundational work paved the way for the rapid development of mRNA-based Covid vaccines when the pandemic hit.
7. mRNA technology has proven to be safe and effective against Covid-19. Additionally, early studies show promise for its use in cancer treatment, seasonal flu vaccines, and vaccines against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and HIV. Ongoing research is also exploring its potential for treating autoimmune diseases and as an alternative to gene therapy for conditions like sickle cell disease.