The two researchers were awarded for their multi-decade work on the chemical modifications of nucleosides in mRNA molecules and the interactions between mRNA and the immune system. These discoveries were the basis for the development of messenger RNA vaccines in the recent COVID-19 pandemic, saving millions of lives.The National Academy of Sciences known as the Academy of the Forty congratulates the winners. In particular, it recalls that Dr. Katalin Karikò was awarded Emilia Chiancone Medal for Biology, in May 2022.
The following is what was highlighted by the Academic Committee composed of members Carlo Barbante, Antonino Cattaneo and Francesco Salvatore:
“Katalin Karikò’s research represents a model of vision and intuition, combined with scientific rigor and perseverance in her goals. The scientific dream of using mRNA molecules to drive the expression of therapeutic proteins ran into problems related to the instability and low half-life of mRNA molecules injected in vivo, and their access to the interior of cells but, most importantly, the discovery that the introduction of mRNA in vivo resulted in a major inflammatory and immune response. Determined to remove this obstacle, Katalin Karikò studied the mechanisms of mRNA-mediated immune activation, finding that transfer RNA, used by Karikò and Weissman as an experimental control, showed significantly less immunogenic activity. Karikò was able to give this result the correct interpretation, attributing the different immune behavior to the chemically modified nucleosides characteristic of transfer RNAs. The hypothesis was put to the test by systematically studying the substitution of modified nucleosides in target mRNAs, thus finding that the simple substitution of uridine for pseudouridine was particularly effective in preventing the immune response against introduced mRNA. The mRNA thus modified was also particularly efficient in protein synthesis of the protein it encoded.
These results led to significant proof of concept in the animal, and thus prepared the ground, making possible the very rapid application of this method after the outbreak of the pandemic.
Katalin Karikò represents a positive role model for all those young men and women who devote themselves to research, because of her vision, self-sacrifice, tenacity and ability to benefit from the results of experiments with unexpected outcome.”