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The miracle workers of mRNA


At the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó (known as Kati) met by chance at a copy machine in 1998. And while he was admittedly a quiet guy and kept to himself, they started talking. “We both used to copy a lot of articles to read,” he said.

He was an immunologist who studied cells that adapt to mount immune responses against disease; she was a biochemist working on messenger RNA (called mRNA), the molecule that teaches cells how to make proteins. “We learned from each other,” Karikó said.

“Just kidding, it’s like the Reese’s commercial where chocolate and peanut butter come together to create a new treat,” Weissman said.

And what makes a good scientific team? “Respect each other, listen to each other,” Karikó said. “We didn’t try to dominate each other.”

Nobel laureates Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, honored for their research leading to mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.

CBS News

Their collaboration led to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines in 2020. That year, the virus spread around the world, leading to global lockdowns and killing millions. Weissman said: “I knew as soon as I heard about it that it was a virus, it was a respiratory infection. I knew the vaccine was going to work.”

They never stopped working during confinement. “Day and night, different shifts, minimizing the presence of people in the same room,” Karikó said.

The mRNA COVID vaccine uses messenger RNA to direct cells to create a spike protein, like the one on the surface of the virus, so the body builds defenses against that protein. This protection helps fight the virus.

The vaccine became available in the United States in December 2020. That month, Weissman and Karikó were widely vaccinated. “They set up cameras and took pictures and had fun,” Weissman said.

Karikó and Weissman receive their Pfizer injections.

University of Pennsylvania

The COVID vaccine has reduced deaths and helped people return to relatively normal lives.

When asked if he was disappointed that the vaccine didn’t end COVID once and for all, Weissman replied: “At the beginning of the pandemic, I was going into the intensive care units, and every bed had a COVID patient. a fan, which is malfunctioning. And now when I walked into the intensive care units, there were no COVID patients. And it’s because of the vaccine.

Their work will be used in the fight against some of the world’s most serious diseases. “It’s really phenomenal,” Weissman said. “Right now, there are 250 Phase I clinical trials of RNA vaccines. People are making vaccines for HIV, for malaria, for hepatitis C, for tuberculosis, for food allergies. Speak up to a parent whose child is allergic to peanuts, and every day is a panic.”

COVID-19 vaccines were backed by government mandates and sparked outcry. “The controversy, I still don’t understand people who think science and vaccines are out to ‘catch’ them,” Weissman said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing before.”

“Maybe this is what happens when politics collides with medicine?” » asked Sanneh.

“That’s not the job of our politicians,” Weissman said. “They’re not supposed to tell people how to live worse or how to die from diseases. They’re supposed to help the world.”

Last December, three years after the vaccine’s release, the Nobel Prize committee awarded Karikó and Weissman its 18-karat gold medal.

Biochemist Katalin Karikó (left) and immunologist Drew Weissman react after receiving the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, during the Nobel Prize ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, on 10 December 2023.


Karikó said becoming a Nobel laureate was not yet a reality: “It’s still happening. It takes time.”

Weissman said the moment Phase III clinical trials proved the vaccines were 95% effective was when he saw his life’s work had turned into something useful.

Did he take a moment to celebrate? “No, I’m not really a celebrator,” he said. “I probably went back to work.”

“Same for me,” Karikó said. “I ate a whole bag of chocolate covered peanuts.”

Weissman’s rise might have seemed predictable (“My parents, when I was maybe five years old, we took them on a tour of the Nobel Auditorium, and at one point they walked over to two seats and said, ‘Save them for us.'”). Not so for Karikó. Born in communist Hungary, Karikó never knew a scientist, but she knew she wanted to be one A.

In 1985, Kati Karikó, then 30, left Hungary with her husband and young daughter to work in a laboratory in Pennsylvania. Also on the trip: his daughter’s teddy bear, which helped the family start their new life in America. Karikó had sewn the equivalent of $1,000 in British pounds inside the bear. “Because in Hungary we were not allowed to take money out of the country,” she explained.

teddy bear.jpg
Karikó operated on his daughter’s teddy bear to hide the equivalent of $1,000 in it as his family left communist Hungary for America.

CBS News

Since then, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman have spent decades doing what they both truly love.

“A laboratory is a wonderful place,” she said. “My house is sort of a laboratory.”

Would she rather be in the lab doing her job than talking to reporters? “Yeah, that’s partly true,” she laughed. “But we also realize that it is important to educate the public, explain what we do and inspire the next generation of scientists.”

“Exactly,” Weissman said. “I’m much happier – and nothing personal! – I’m always happiest sitting in my office or in my lab working. It’s my favorite place.”

Sanneh said, “As a member of the human race, I am happy to see you working in your laboratory!

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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Ed Givnish.


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