mRNA Vaccines: where they come from and where they are going

The awarding of the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm is an occasion to revisit the award to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissmann for the development of mRNA vaccines – we have previously reported on this here.
Wolfgang Kerler from 1E9 had invited me for an interview in which we once again tried to discuss the achievements of the two prize winners in an understandable way (German).
Meanwhile, the Nobel Lecture (English) is also available online
This one is a bit more demanding and requires more scientific understanding. I admit: I also had to make an effort to follow Drew Weissmann’s lecture! But the more recent advances he describes are breathtaking when they become available in practice!

Ground-breaking further developments

  • The targeting of vaccines (i.e. reaching exactly the organ you want to reach) is now well advanced.
  • Combination vaccination with up to 70 (!) different mRNAs appears to be successful.
  • Tricks have been found to modulate different responses of the immune system independently of each other.
  • The possibility of replacing very expensive gene therapies (e.g. here) with a “vaccination” seems to be within reach.

Fun and Profundity

Note the necklace worn by Katalin Kariko! I can’t quite identify it, but it’s almost certainly a pseudo-uridine!

Screenshot from the Nobel Lecture

Note the list of co-operation partners at the end of Drew Weissmann’s lecture (Katalin Kariko mentioned them during the lecture). As we said in the interview: important discoveries are no longer made by two or three people. There should actually be 200 on stage! Both award winners recognised this in their presentations.

It was made clear in the introduction that the development of RNA modifications was not directly aimed at an application. The research was driven by curiosity – the benefits only became apparent later!

The importance of photocopiers is mentioned several times. They were a meeting place for scientists who waited in a queue to copy scientific publications. Instead of being bored, they talked to each other and sometimes collaborations developed. Digitisation has made photocopiers superfluous – does this prevent scientific progress?

Science communication at the photocopier
(BioWissKomm by Midjourney)

Almost every section of Kariko’s presentation ends with the sentence “And then I was fired.” That gives you food for thought. Did she ultimately owe her success to the fact that her employment contracts were always cancelled after a few years? After all, she has always found important collaboration partners at her new place of work.
It’s certainly not bad a bad idea for scientists to change jobs from time to time. But only a “stubborn” woman like Katalin Kariko can withstand so much rejection!

The same applies to financial support: hardly any research project can progress without funding. Here, too, Kariko has repeatedly encountered rejection. This misjudgement should be extremely embarrassing for public and private sponsors!

Translated with DeepL (free version), modified by the author

Wolfgang Nellen
Title illustration
BioWissKomm by Midjourney
Translation (free version) with modifivations by the author.