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Nobel Prize winners 'never doubted' RNA COVID vaccine potential throughout 15 years of research

The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for enabling development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
The Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for enabling development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two scientists whose work helped lead to the development of the MRNA vaccines against COVID-19. 

Katalin Karikó, PhD, and Dr. Drew Weissman did their work together at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where they both teach. They learned about the win on Monday morning — though Weissman says the victory only propels their main goals.

“Our interest is science and is in proving science and getting young people getting the world interested in science, and moving RNA vaccines into new therapeutics, new gene therapies,” he says. “And I think this recognition will help us do that.”

3 questions with Nobel Prize winners Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman

Katalin, you’re one of only 13 women of more than 200 Nobel Medicine winners in history. You’ve faced many obstacles throughout your career, including leaving the U.S. at some point to go to Germany, where you could really work on developing this RNA technology. You didn’t always get the support you needed to thrive. What kept you going? And how do you hope your story inspires other women to pursue STEM careers?

Katalin Karikó: “I was considered, from the outside, not successful because getting grants and Nature paper and whatnot is what it meant to be successful. But in the laboratory when we worked with Drew, we could see the success because the RNA performed better and we got the better data.

“That was the data, the science, that made me want to move and to do more experiments because together, we could feel that it will lead, maybe not in our lifetime, maybe we would not be the one that would go to the clinic, but maybe one day somebody will. 

“People ask me that if they are doing experiments and it’s not working or something, just to be persistent, not giving up when you don’t see improvement, it’s nonsense. You have to see improvement and that’s how you have to keep doing it, expecting that one day, maybe we will get the grant. And then I submitted several of them, but I learned from those writings and I always get the positive attitude, that I learned from it. Even if I don’t get the grant, I learned from it and then the next one will be better.”

We survived a global pandemic, thanks in large part to both of you. What inspires you or gives you hope through times when you’re being told, ‘No, we’re not going to fund this work’?

Drew Weissman: “It’s a difficult question because, looking back, I never doubted. I’m a [principal investigator] of a laboratory. I have graduate students and postdocs who come in, who start a project, and I sometimes have to tell them, ‘You need to change projects. Your project isn’t working.’ And they always look at me and they say, ‘Well, but you spent 25 years working on RNA. Why should I give up?’ 

“What I want to tell them is, ‘Your project is bad and it doesn’t have potential.’ And we always knew that RNA had potential if we could solve all of the problems. It took us 15 years to solve the problems, but we knew all along that it had enormous potential and we couldn’t give up.”

Katalin, what are you working on now? What’s your next big discovery that we should all be watching out for?

Karikó: “We were busy with Drew actually accepting prizes, educating the public, so it was quite an overwhelming good two and a half years.

“But I have other things which I already [have been working on] for a long time. I was reading about them, creating a hypothesis, and then I will go work on that project which is important for treating a very serious disease.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Julia Corcoran. James Perkins Mastromarino, Allison Hagan and Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

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