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Rickard Sandberg on this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine: ”A key discovery”

The discovery that paved the way for the development of todays mRNA vaccines is the basis for this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

On Monday, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet. The award this year went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their discovery of nuceloside modifications in mRNA that made it possible to develop effective vaccines against covid-19.

Already in the 80s, methods were developed for the production of mRNA in vitro. Reasearches then started seeing the possibility of using the technology for vaccines, however, there were obstacles hindering it from becoming a reality. For example mRNA produced in vitro caused inflammatory reactions.

In the 90s, Katalin Karikó began doing research on mRNA technology at the University of Pennsylvania in the US and started a collaboration with colleague Drew Weissman, who was interested in dendritic cells.

They noticed that dendritic cells recognized mRNA produced in vitro as a foreign substance, causing an inflammatory reaction, while mRNA from mammalian cells did not produce the same type of reaction.

The explanation would appear to be the absence of the type of base modifications that mammalian cell mRNA undergoes.

”They realized that you have to introduce modifications in the base that is in the nucleoside in order for the cells not to recognize the mRNA produced as foreign. If you use these base modifications, you can use it for clinical applications” says Rickard Sandberg, professor and member of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet to Life Science Sweden and continues:

”This became a key discovery that enabled much of the mRNA technology.”

The discovery was published in 2005 and paved the way for the vaccines that were produced in record time during the corona pandemic.

In addition to the vaccines, thera are several areas that are now being researched into for the use of mRNA for therapeutic purposes.

”They are trying to develop methods to treat cancer using this. Another area is something we call protein therapeutic delivery where you try to introduce well functioning proteins if you have some kind of disease where you have a defective copy of a certain enzyme”, says Rickard Sandberg.

Katalin Karikó, who shares this year’s prize with Drew Weissman, is the thirteenth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The last time a woman received a Nobel Prize in the field was in 2015. Rickard Sandberg belives that it is partly due to a previous imbalance in the research community.

”We often reward discoveries that were made far back in time. But there has been a significant increase in the last 15 years an we do a lot of work to be sure that we do not differentiate in any way in our processes”, he says.

Both Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman received the news the morning before the announcement by the secretary of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet, Thomas Perlmann.

”They were very happy. This year I actually asked if they were sursprised because I suspected they might not be as they have already been awarded so many prizes”, said Thomas Perlmann at the announcement of the award.

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