The Nobel Prize Stories 1 – mRNA Magic that Saved the World


The announcement of the Nobel Prize winners for the year 2023 has begun! The Nobel Prizes are regarded as the most prestigious awards for intellectual achievement.

Nobel Prizes are awarded annually from a fund established by the Swedish inventor and industrialist, Alfred Nobel.

In the will he drafted in 1895, Nobel instructed that most of his fortune be set aside as a fund for awarding five annual prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

Nobel Prize Winners in the Field of Physiology/Medicine

The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to biochemist Katalin Karikó and immunologist Drew Weissman for their pioneering work on mRNA, which significantly contributed to the development of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.

RNA and mRNA – What Do These Mean?

DNA is widely known among people. DNA tests help trace biological relationships, making them popular among the general public. If you’re wondering, ‘What exactly does this DNA do?’ or ‘What are RNA and mRNA?’ read on.

Understanding DNA, RNA, and mRNA in Simple Terms:

As depicted in the above infographic, imagine the human body as the end product. DNA serves as the comprehensive instruction manual, whereas mRNA represents specific instruction pages for producing distinct proteins. rRNA functions as the assembly line in the protein factory, with tRNA acting as the factory robots delivering specific components based on mRNA’s instructions.

Collectively, RNA serves as a protein factory, utilising components (A, C, G, T) to yield proteins.

A primary distinction between DNA and RNA is that while DNA possesses a double-stranded helix structure, RNA is single-stranded.

mRNA and Vaccines

Curious about how individual instruction pages (mRNA) that produce proteins are repurposed as vaccines to combat diseases?

mRNA was first identified in 1960. Early experiments involved introducing mRNA into cells, directing them to produce specific proteins. This was achieved using lipids in the form of liposomes.

Picture liposomes as miniature protective bubble wraps that safely transport mRNA. Upon reaching their destination, they fuse with cell walls, releasing the mRNA into cells. It’s analogous to a mail carrier delivering a package to a residence!

In 1987, Robert Malone undertook an experiment mixing mRNA strands with fatty droplets, culminating in a unique molecular concoction. Human cells immersed in this genetic mixture absorbed the mRNA, subsequently generating proteins from it. He later envisioned mRNA functioning as a therapeutic agent. That same year, he introduced the fat-combined mRNA into frogs, observing its absorption by frog embryos.

The infographic above provides a concise timeline of pivotal milestones in mRNA research. It showcases the crucial moments that have shaped our understanding and application of mRNA in medicine. Each entry emphasises a key event, offering readers a snapshot of the progress made over the decades and highlighting the potential of mRNA therapies.

mRNA and Cancer

mRNA vaccines sparked interest as potential cancer therapeutics.

David Curiel explored this avenue, witnessing encouraging outcomes in mice but encountering scepticism concerning its financial viability. Eli Gilboa devised a method wherein immune cells were harvested, infused with synthetic mRNA targeting tumour proteins, and reinserted into the body. This breakthrough led to the inception of Merix Bioscience (now CoImmune) and ensuing human trials. However, a pivotal vaccine encountered challenges in subsequent tests.

Nobel Laureates in Action:

During his tenure at the University of Tübingen, Hoerr achieved a significant milestone in 2000 by eliciting a response from mice to direct mRNA injections. This prompted the foundation of CureVac. Despite initial scepticism and occasional outright dismissal of his work, financial support gradually emerged. The firm was keen to initiate testing. Steve Pascolo, a leading scientist there, even self-administered the mRNA. Shortly after, they embarked on formal trials for prospective skin cancer treatments.

Concurrently, Karikó and Weissman, the brains behind another initiative, devised a method to modify the mRNA, enabling it to bypass the body’s natural defences.


The accompanying infographic delves into the groundbreaking contributions of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, Nobel laureates in the realm of mRNA. Their journey, mapped step-by-step, underscores their tenacity, innovations, and the significant obstacles they overcame. By spotlighting their pivotal discoveries and endeavours, this visual narrative celebrates the duo’s monumental role in advancing mRNA science and its applications in vaccine development.

Discoveries Facilitating COVID Vaccines:

Such preliminary trials paved the way for two revolutionary developments: the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, now administered to countless individuals worldwide. In 2021, sales of these vaccines are projected to exceed $50 billion.

Here’s the mechanism of action for these vaccines: Both Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech’s formulations provide the body with instructions via mRNA. This guidance instructs our cells to synthesise something resembling a segment of the COVID-19 virus, referred to as the spike protein. Recognizing this, our body produces defenders (antibodies) against this component, bolstering our overall immune response.

Cornell PhD Candidate Explains How Coronavirus mRNA Vaccines Work

However, past endeavours hit a snag. When scientists attempted to utilise mRNA in this manner, the body would promptly eliminate it. Then, in the mid-2000s, Karikó and Weissman, stationed at UPenn, had an ingenious realisation. They made a minor modification to the mRNA structure, reducing the likelihood of cellular aggression towards it.

To simplify, vaccine expert John Tregoning articulated that this adjustment amplified the vaccine’s efficacy. It was akin to deriving enhanced benefits from a minimised input.

Applauding Their Achievements

Their groundbreaking discovery played an instrumental role in formulating the COVID-19 vaccine, which has saved innumerable lives globally. We commend and congratulate them on securing the esteemed Nobel Prize.


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