Nobel Prize: Immeasurable Achievement in Vaccines Suppressed Novel Coronavirus

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been won by researchers for vaccines that played a major role in suppressing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Their achievement in saving many lives around the world is immeasurable.

The prize will go to adjunct Prof. Katalin Kariko and Prof. Drew Weissman, both at the University of Pennsylvania. They jointly advanced research into artificially synthesized versions of genetic material messenger RNA (mRNA), which paved the way for the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

It had been thought that mRNA when administered to the body would cause an excessive immune reaction, making it difficult to use in vaccines or therapeutics. However, the researchers succeeded in modifying the substance that causes the violent reaction and suppressing the reaction.

They had been working on this topic for more than 20 years before the novel coronavirus outbreak. It is noteworthy that they continued persistent efforts in their research without being bound by conventional thought.

The use of mRNA made it possible to quickly produce vaccines. Their research results were the driving force behind U.S. pharmaceutical firms Pfizer Inc. and Moderna, Inc. putting the vaccines to practical use less than a year after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Under conventional methods, it was common for vaccine development to take several years. It is not difficult to imagine how widespread the damage would have been if the coronavirus pandemic could not be addressed and containment of the infection was delayed.

Kariko’s background has also attracted attention. Kariko immigrated to the United States with her young daughter from her native country of Hungary. At the University of Pennsylvania, she was not able to obtain research funding as she expected, and also faced demotion.

While standing in line for one of the university’s photocopy machines to make copies of research papers, she met her co-researcher Weissman. They began experimenting with various methods to utilize mRNA, which eventually led to the development of a vaccine by a German venture company.

This shows the importance of discovering talent regardless of nationality or gender and expanding ideas while interacting with other researchers. Japanese universities, which are said to be closed and have few international joint research projects, may have much to learn.

In this field, Japanese researchers have also made contributions that led to the development of the vaccines, such as the discovery of a structure that stabilizes mRNA. However, although Japan tackled the development of domestically produced vaccines in the pandemic, it could not put them to practical use at an early stage and had to rely on imports of vaccines from Europe and the United States.

It is vital to investigate the causes of this situation and make use of the results in the future.

The mRNA technology can also be applied to the development of cancer drugs, among other purposes. It is hoped that the technology will be used for innovative drug development that will further expand the possibilities of medicine.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 4, 2023)