Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog



2021 William B. Coley Award Recipients Drs. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman Receive the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 

On October 2 the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, announced that the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will be awarded to Katalin Karikó, PhD (University of Pennsylvania) and Drew Weissman, MD, PhD (University of Pennsylvania). Drs. Karikó and Weissman are receiving the  honor for their discoveries with nucleoside base modifications that were key to developing an effective mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in early 2020, the global scientific community mobilized with a singular focus: to develop vaccines capable of curbing a scourge that was taking millions of lives. Drs. Karikó and Weissman were instrumental in developing the COVID-19 vaccine at an unprecedented pace. They helped illuminate our understanding of how mRNA can be used in vaccines to develop immunity against COVID-19. This all came during a time when the scientific world was under tremendous stress to counteract one of the fiercest threats to human health in modern times. 

Drs. Karikó and Weissman had been working with mRNA technology for therapeutic use for some time before they started working towards advancing the COVID-19 vaccine. In the early 1990s, Dr. Karikó, a biochemist, held true to the hypothesis that mRNA could be a therapeutic remedy despite confronting challenges in convincing prospective funding agencies of her work’s potential. Her colleague, Dr. Weissman at University of Pennsylvania, was interested in dendritic cells, which are important for immune surveillance and the triggering of vaccine-activated immune responses. The two scientists soon began collaborating, and influenced by innovative ideas, started to focus on how various RNAs operate within the immune system. 

Following their contribution towards COVID-19 vaccine development, CRI awarded them the prestigious 2021 William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic Immunology, alongside Uğur Şahin, MD, and Özlem Türeci, MD. The Coley Award is reserved for only the most illustrious scientists whose research contributions exponentially propel progress.  

At the 2021 CRI annual awards ceremony, CRI CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs, Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, stated, “Many attendees likely will be surprised to learn that the mRNA technology that changed lives during the current COVID-19 pandemic originated years ago in research intended to combat cancer.”  

The discoveries and progress made by the contributions of Drs. Karikó and Weissman demonstrate the multidisciplinary nature of scientific research. With brilliant minds like theirs driving innovations in patient outcomes, we are confident that we can create a world immune to cancer. 

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