Karikó and Weissman win Nobel Prize in medicine for work that enabled mRNA vaccines against COVID-19

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for discoveries that enabled the creation of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 that were critical in slowing the pandemic — technology that's also being studied to fight cancer and other diseases.

Hungarian-American Katalin Karikó and American Drew Weissman were cited for contributing "to the unprecedented rate of vaccine development during one of the greatest threats to human health," according to the panel that awarded the prize in Stockholm.


The panel said the pair’s "groundbreaking findings ... fundamentally changed our understanding of how mRNA interacts with our immune system."


Traditionally, making vaccines required growing viruses or pieces of viruses and then purifying them before next steps. The messenger RNA approach starts with a snippet of genetic code carrying instructions for making proteins. Pick the right virus protein to target, and the body turns into a mini vaccine factory.

In early experiments with animals, simply injecting lab-grown mRNA triggered a reaction that usually destroyed it. Those early challenges caused many to lose faith in the approach: "Pretty much everybody gave up on it," Weissman said.

But Karikó, a professor at Szeged University in Hungary and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Weissman, of the University of Pennsylvania, figured out a tiny modification to the building blocks of RNA that made it stealthy enough to slip past immune defenses.

Karikó, 68, is the 13th woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine. She was a senior vice president at BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Karikó and Weissman, 64, met by chance in the 1990s while photocopying research papers, Karikó told The Associated Press.


Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, described the mRNA vaccines made by BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna Inc. as a "game changer" in shutting down the coronavirus pandemic, crediting the shots with saving millions of lives.

"We would likely only now be coming out of the depths of COVID without the mRNA vaccines," Hunter said.

John Tregoning, of Imperial College London, called Karikó "one of the most inspirational scientists I have met." Her work together with Weissman "shows the importance of basic, fundamental research in the path to solutions to the most pressing societal needs," he said.

The duo's pivotal mRNA research was combined with two other earlier scientific discoveries to create the COVID-19 vaccines. Researchers in Canada had developed a fatty coating to help mRNA get inside cells to do its work. And studies with prior vaccines at the U.S. National Institutes of Health showed how to stabilize the coronavirus spike protein that the new mRNA shots needed to deliver.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at Exeter University, predicted the technology used in the vaccines could be used to refine vaccines for other diseases like Ebola, malaria and dengue, and might also be used to create shots that immunize people against certain types of cancer or auto-immune diseases including lupus.

"The future is just so incredible," Weissman said. "We’ve been thinking for years about everything that we could do with RNA, and now it’s here."

Karikó said her husband was the first to pick up the early morning call, handing it to her to hear the news. And Karikó was the one to break the news to Weissman, since she got in touch before the Nobel committee could reach him.

Both scientists thought it was a prank at first, until they watched the official announcement.

"I was very much surprised," Karikó said. "But I am very happy."

The two have collaborated for decades, with Karikó focusing on the RNA side and Weissman handling the immunology: "We educated each other," she said.

Before COVID-19, mRNA vaccines were already being tested for diseases like Zika, influenza and rabies — but the pandemic brought more attention to this approach, Karikó said. Now, scientists are trying out mRNA approaches for cancer, allergies and other gene therapies, Weissman said.

"It's already been going on for many years, but this has just given RNA the recognition," Weissman said.

Karikó's family is no stranger to high honors. Her daughter, Susan Francia, is a double Olympic gold medalist in rowing, competing for the United States.

The prize carries a cash award of 11 million Swedish kronor ($1 million) from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel. The laureates are invited to receive their awards at ceremonies on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

Nobel announcements continue with the physics prize on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the economics award on Oct. 9.

Grandmother 'sexually humiliated' by police in 'torture warehouse': lawsuit

A grandmother is suing the Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD) after allegedly being "sexually humiliated" inside a "torture warehouse" after a traffic stop, she claims in a lawsuit as the department reels from the fallout of the now-shuttered facility.

The department is facing compounding scrutiny after the FBI opened a civil rights investigation into a facility nicknamed the "Brave Cave," stemming from lawsuits filed by Ternell Brown and Jeremy Lee in September and August, respectively.

Four officers are facing criminal charges stemming from that investigation.

Brown, 47, claims she was "sexually humiliated" during unnecessary strip and body cavity searches in the facility on June 10. 


Lee, who was charged with resisting arrest when he was taken to the warehouse on Jan. 9, was allegedly beaten so badly that "the local jail refused to admit him until he was treated by a nearby hospital," according to his lawsuit. 

Fox News Digital could not obtain incident reports from the Baton Rouge Police Department at press time.

Ryan Thompson, one of the attorneys representing Brown in her suit, told Fox News Digital that "there are still reports [of alleged abuse in the torture warehouse] coming in" to their office; at least one is tenable, he said, and "another lawsuit will be filed on his behalf very soon."

BRPD Public Information Officer L'Jean McKneely told Fox News Digital that the department "is committed to addressing these troubling accusations and has initiated administrative and criminal investigations." 

"Chief [Murphy] Paul met with FBI officials and requested their assistance to ensure an independent review of these complaints," McKneely wrote in an email. "The Narcotics Processing Facility has been permanently closed and the Street Crimes Unit has been disbanded and reassigned."


The investigation also implicated four officers for using a Taser, striking a nude man and using excessive force in the process of a strip search performed in a police department bathroom and caught on body camera footage, police said in a Friday press conference. The officers allegedly reviewed the footage after the incident, then devised a plan to prevent the video from being reviewed. 

In Lee's case, Thompson said, the officer "pulls down [Lee's] boxers so you can see his underwear" as he is being transferred from one vehicle to another. 

According to the lawsuit, officers used the "Brave Cave" as a "home base" to "take suspects to interrogate them, gather intelligence, and attempt to 'flip' them to begin cooperating with BRPD." 

The "narcotics processing facility" where "thousands of suspects have been processed" over the last 20 years – including about 350 this year, per Administrative Chief Myron Daniels – was shuttered by the Baton Rouge mayor.


Brown was pulled over for her vehicle's window tint on June 10, per body camera footage reviewed by Fox News Digital. Officers asked her and her husband to stand outside the car with their hands on the back hood. After spotting an open Twisted Tea, they searched the vehicle and found two different types of pills prescribed to Brown stored together in the same bottle.

Brown's attorneys allege that their client told officers "at least four times" that the pills were legally prescribed to her and claim that their combined storage is not illegal.

Regardless, they wrote, officers "forcibly" took Brown and her husband to the "Brave Cave." There, per the lawsuit, Brown underwent illegal strip and body cavity searches.

Thompson told Fox News Digital that a medical professional must execute these searches per department policy, a measure that was not taken in Brown's case. A supervisor should be called for clearance, and then a warrant must be filed with a judge or magistrate, he said. To perform a body cavity search, the lawyer said, "something needs to be found" to warrant it during a body cavity search, and nothing was found in the searches of Brown and Lee.

"There is supposed to be documentation for why a strip search is needed. I have not seen any documentation as far as the findings and the reasoning," Thompson said.


In Lee's case, police took him into a squad car after they carried out a warrant on a North Baton Rouge home, where they found Lee sitting on the porch.

Thompson alleges Lee was held in another squad car for "hours" before an officer "put on a certain [intimidating] rap song"; when they arrived at the warehouse, Thompson said, the officers can be seen taking off their body-worn cameras as they ushered Lee inside. 

There, a criminal complaint shows, Lee supposedly "charged at [officers]," Thompson said. Allegedly, one of the officers knocked Lee down with a leg sweep before other officers began to kick him. 

Later footage, taken from a body worn camera placed between one of the officer's legs, shows a protracted period of questioning after the alleged beating. 

"All types of things – does he know this rapper, are you familiar with this rap group, can you give us any information. It's intelligence gathering," Thompson said. "I would not say that the types of questions were illegal, but the manner in which it was done was unconstitutional – you have a right to counsel present, you have a right to be Mirandized."

Both the office of East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Anderson Dotson, who represents the police department, and the Baton Rouge Union of Police declined to comment due to pending litigation. 

The FBI investigation into the department is ongoing.

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