mRNA technology, a well-deserved Nobel Prize!

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has just been awarded by an ad hoc committee of medical professors from the prestigious Swedish Karolinska Institute to professor Katalin Karikó, an Hungarian biochemist, as well as to professor Drew Weissman, an American immunologist.

The two aforementioned scientists have been meritoriously nominated as Nobel Prize recipients for their revolutionary discovery of the messanger RNA (mRNA) technology.

In my opinion, this appears to be of great concern for several reasons.

First of all, the production of anti-SARS-CoV-2 vaccines has greatly benefitted from the mRNA technology, which has made them available to mankind after just one year (a world Guiness record!) since December 2019, when this pandemic betacoronavirus was recognized for the first time in Wuhan, China.

Notably, millions of human lives have been saved by mRNA vaccines, with 13 billion doses having been administered to people on a global scale. In other words, should mRNA technology-based anti-COVID-19 vaccines not be available yet, or should they have alternatively become available years after the first virus identification (as it has always happened before the COVID-19 pandemic), we would have almost certainly faced 3-4 times more deaths than the already catastrophic number of 7 million people hitherto killed by SARS-CoV-2 worldwide!

Still of interest, mRNA technology-based vaccines may be easily "reengineered", thereby warranting protection towards the most transmissible, contagious and/or immune-escaping SARS-CoV-2 variants and "Omicron" subvariants, including the newly emerged "Eris" (alias "EG.5") and "Pirola" (alias "BA.2.86").

These concepts can be successfully applied also to the production of vaccines against several other mutation-prone infectious agents, either viral or non-viral, including the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human and animal influenza viruses and malaria-causing plasmodia. In parallel to these very exciting applications in the fight against infectious pathogens, the mRNA technology holds promise also in the battle against neoplastic, autoimmune and neurodegenerative disease conditions.

Notwithstanding the above, the mRNA technology had quite a long and complicated "gestation" before its "parturition" on behalf of Katalin Karikó. Indeed, after she moved in 1985 from Hungary to USA to follow a PhD study programme, Professor Karikó experienced a lot of disappointment for several consecutive years, given that nobody replied in a positive way to her repeated funding requests aimed at developing and improving the mRNA technology.

But, given that Fortuna Audaces Iuvat, a lucky happening was waiting for her just behind the corner: that is to say that Professor Karikó and Professor Weissman finally met each other in 1997, in front of a photocopy machine, at Pennsylvania State University!

Together with Drew Weissman, who was working on the AIDS virus (HIV) at that time, Katalin Karikó was able, in fact, to improve the mRNA technology by incorporating into the RNA nucleotide sequence pseudouridine instead of uridine, with this resulting in a suppression of unwanted and detrimental host's inflammatory and immune responses.

As a concluding remark, there is an ancient Latin Roman motto that is better than any other in summarizing the touching and exciting life of Katalin Karikó, a brilliant Woman and a top-ranking Scientist: Per Aspera ad Astra!

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