Who deserves the pandemic Nobel?

“Karikó deserves it, without a doubt. This is only the beginning of the vaccines that will arrive in the future ”

Africa González – Professor of Immunology at the University of VIGO


The Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute, located in Solna, near Stockholm, is in charge of selecting the winners from among the candidates proposed by a committee of this same Swedish institution. They must be “discoveries that have opened doors and changed paradigms,” explains José María Martín Moreno, professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Valencia. The height of that discovery must be uncontroversial, and it must be of objective benefit to humanity. ”

It seems clear that the vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 fulfill this premise, since they are “based on clearly innovative concepts that have had a clear positive impact”, highlights Martín Moreno, who highlights the German doctors of Turkish origin Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci (BioNTech); the Canadian biologist Derrick Rossi (Moderna); the British vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert (Oxford-AstraZeneca), and the American biochemist Philip Felgner (University of California), in addition to the aforementioned Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian biologist, and Drew Weissman, an American immunologist. “All of them received the 2021 Princess of Asturias Award for Scientific and Technical Research, to which 48 candidates from 17 nationalities opted,” recalls the prestigious epidemiologist.

“Without a doubt, my university colleagues Weissman and Karikó are clearly deserving”

César de la Fuente – Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania


As Sandra López León, PhD in Epidemiology and Molecular Genetics from Erasmus University (Netherlands) points out, the platforms that were developed during the pandemic for vaccines “have the potential to revolutionize medicine, since they open doors to find treatments for diseases for which there is no cure ”. He refers to the fact that, in theory, mRNA technology “can be used to produce any protein within the body: antibodies, hormones, neuropeptides … If they give an award directed at the Covid vaccine, it will not only be for the vaccine. It will be because of everything that comes in the future ”, he says.

The platforms to develop the vaccine have opened doors for diseases that have no cure


López León emphasizes that “it is difficult to single out a single person, because for Covid vaccines to exist, hundreds of researchers have worked on issues of virology, molecular biology, immunology and pharmacology during the last 60 years.”

“If they did not win the Nobel Karikó, Weissman, Sahin and Türeci it would be a disappointment”

Silvia Villapol – Neuroscientist, Houston Methodist, USA


The Galician neuroscientist Sonia Villapol (Houston Methodist Research Institute, Texas, USA) agrees that the Nobel must recognize the pioneers of mRNA technology and the development of vaccines using nanoparticles. “Without a doubt they have rescued us from the pandemic,” he emphasizes, adding that “if doctors Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci did not win the Nobel, it would be a disappointment.”

Villapol expresses “a special preference and admiration” for Karikó: “From the beginning of the pandemic, each of her words indicated that she did understand how this problem would be solved. His certainty and his security gave strength. Perhaps because many of us feel identified in a certain way with her career: a woman, a scientist and an emigrant ”.

“Tenacity, dedication and passion”

The professor of Immunology at the University of Vigo Africa González also bets “without a doubt” on Dr. Karikó. “His tenacity, dedication and passion for messenger RNA for more than 30 years have made possible the RNA vaccines of the companies Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna. And this is only the beginning of those that will come in the future ”, predicts this scientist who is an expert in nanoparticles –she co-founded the company Nanoimmunotech- and who knows what it is to work with a Nobel: she did a postdoctoral stay with the Argentine chemist César Milstein ( University of Cambridge), awarded in 1984 for the technique of obtaining monoclonal antibodies, used as therapy against Covid-19, among many other diseases.

“Karikó and Weissman have won the Lasker-DeBakery prize, considered the prelude to the Nobel”

Juan Jesús Gestal – Emeritus Professor of Public Health, U. Santiago


González also highlights two fellow immunologists: Sarah Gilbert, who has made the Oxford-AstraZeneca adenovirus vaccine possible, and Drew Weissman, who together with Karikó “patented a modified RNA that allowed its use with a lower degree of toxicity, and the lipid coverage that allows it to remain stable ”.

The Galician scientist César de la Fuente, Presidential Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, also supports Karikó and Weismann’s candidacy: “Without a doubt, my university colleagues Drew Weissman (my laboratory neighbor) and Katalin Karikó are clearly deserving of the award. ”.

The invention must be uncontroversial and suppose an objective benefit for Humanity


De la Fuente, who is researching new antibiotics against super-resistant bacteria and has created cheap tests for COVID, recalls that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with messenger RNA technology perfected by Karikó and Weissman, “have contributed to saving millions of lives.” . “This technology uses our own cells as factories for the production of an antigen (spike protein) from messenger RNA,” he explains. “For 15 years, their perseverance – they were not funded for a long time because the community thought this would never work – allowed them to modify the messenger RNA so that it was not immunogenic and they developed a system to deliver this molecule and prevent its degradation” .

“Vaccines are based on innovative concepts that have had a clear impact”

José Mª Martín – Professor of Public Health, University of Valencia


Juan Jesús Gestal Otero, emeritus professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Santiago, explains in more detail this scientific achievement of Karikó and Weissman, consisting of “the substitution in the mRNA of uridine for pseudouridine to avoid the inflammatory reactions caused by the mRNA and to determine the best way to package the mRNA with lipid nanoparticles to protect it from hydrolysis and deliver it to the cytosol of the cell ”. “They are the main winners of the Nobel,” says the former dean of Medicine at the University of Compostela, who recalls that these two scientists “have been distinguished with the 2021 Lasker-DeBakery Clinical Medical Research Prize, considered the prelude to the Nobel ”. He highlights that “therapeutic developments with mRNA for cancer, autoimmune diseases and tissue regeneration are already underway. The mRNA vaccines are going to represent a revolution in the field of vaccinology, as well as in the development of new vaccines against HIV, a universal vaccine for influenza, tuberculosis, malaria, cytomegalovirus, Ebola, Zica … ”.

“The mRNA opens doors to find treatments for diseases for which there is no cure”

Sandra López – PhD in Epidemiology and Genetics


Apart from the creators of the vaccines against Covid, José María Martín Moreno refers to other preferences, such as the British biologist David Baulcombe, whose work was decisive in opening the now flourishing field of study known as “epigenetics”; Harvard American James Shapiro, who has provided answers to the phenomenon of gene mobility; and the Spanish Fernando Baquero, from the Ramón y Cajal Institute, an expert in bacterial pathogenesis. “If there were more support for science in our country, it would undoubtedly be a candidate for the Nobel Prize,” claims Martín Moreno.

Hundreds of scientists worked on topics of virology, molecular biology or pharmacology


As the young scientist from Vigo André Pérez Potti, who researches at the Karolinska Institute and is the co-author of a praised work on T cells and COVID, says, “what is really important, beyond the obvious benefit of vaccines that save lives, is to put it is clear that the investigation is necessary ”.

The epic of Katalin Karikó

“He arrived in the United States with a title, two suitcases and a girl under his arms.” This is how the Galician scientist Sonia Villapol describes the epic of the biologist Katalin Karikó (1955, Szolno, Hungary), whose investigations, culminated in 2005, have allowed messenger RNA to be introduced into the body without causing an exacerbated immune response and that by entering cells is not degraded before fulfilling its function, for which it used lipid nanoparticles. “His scientific career has been a marathon with multiple falls,” recalls Villapol. And it is that Karikó was born into a very humble family, in a house without running water, a refrigerator or a television, and after obtaining a doctorate in Biology, he emigrated to the United States with what he was wearing: he sold his car on the black market and hid the thousand euros he obtained on his two-year-old daughter’s stuffed toy to circumvent the Hungarian communist regime’s ban, which only allowed $ 100 out of the country. It was 1985. His life in the United States, where he did not know anyone, was not easy. Its applications for aid were systematically rejected and it was downgraded in 1995 by the University of Pennsylvania, which did not believe in the future of mRNA. In addition, he suffered cancer. But she persevered. A chance encounter at a photocopier with Drew Weissman, who was searching for an HIV vaccine, changed her fate. Fifteen years later, her findings have been the basis for the vaccines of Moderna and BioNTech, a company of which she is vice president. His daughter, Susan Francia, won two Olympic rowing gold medals for the USA | RL


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