Uğur ŞAHIN and Özlem TÜRECI, of German nationality and Katalin KARIKÓ, of Hungarian nationality, will share the 2022 Jeantet-Collen Prize for Translational Medicine for the design and development of mRNA-based vaccines that safely protect humankind against the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Born in 1965, Uğur Şahin studied medicine at the University of Cologne, Germany and graduated with a doctoral thesis in cancer immunotherapy. He then worked as a physician and scientist in Cologne, Homburg, Zürich and Mainz before being appointed Professor of Experimental Oncology in 2006 at the University of Mainz.
In 2001, Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci and Christoph Huber co-founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, a company developing monoclonal antibodies directed against novel cancer cell surface targets discovered by them, for use against oesophageal and gastrointestinal cancer. In 2008 they co-founded the biotechnology company BioNTech, were Uğur Şahin serves as CEO and Özlem Türeci as Chief Medical Officer. Katalin Karikó joined BioNTech in 2013 as vice-president and became a senior vice-president in 2019.
Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci and Katalin Karikó have received many awards, including the National German Sustainability Award (Sahin and Türeci), the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Sahin and Türeci), the Award of the Hall of Fame of German Science (Sahin and Türeci), the Paul-Ehrlich Prize (Sahin, Türeci and Karikó), the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award (Karikó).
An mRNA vaccine
mRNAs are messenger molecules that carry the genetic information encoded by DNA, found in the nucleus, to the protein making machinery which is found in the cytoplasm of the cell. Here the RNA messages are read and translated into fully functional proteins which will carry out the many tasks needed for a functioning cell. Each specific mRNA codes a specific protein. Traditional vaccines are protein-based, i.e. they use viral proteins which have been weakened or deactivated to induce an immune response. However, growing large amounts of a virus and then weakening the virus or extracting the protein takes time and resources.
In the 1990s, a handful of scientists began exploring whether vaccines could be made more simply. If you know the exact structure of the mRNA that makes the critical piece of a virus’ protein coat, such as the spike protein, could you inject the mRNA and let our cell machinery do the translation? The idea seems simple, but it kindled little enthusiasm in the community as mRNAs are unstable molecules and exogenous mRNAs produce immune reactions and are destroyed before being taken up by our cells. Through their dedicated research over the last 20 years, Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci and Katalin Karikó played key and complementary roles in the development of a clinically effective and safe mRNA-based vaccine against COVID-19. In ground-breaking research, Katalin Karikó, in collaboration with Drew Weissman, investigated RNA-mediated immune activation and discovered that making specific modifications to the nucleosides in the mRNA could suppress the body’s own inflammatory response against the synthetic mRNA. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, who have a long-lasting interest in mRNA-based drugs for use as individualized cancer immunotherapies, solved several mRNA-associated vaccine problems: they developed methods for delivering mRNA to dendritic cells using a suitable lipid carrier; they enhanced their stability; and they increased the level of protein translation.
Collectively, vaccines have done more good for humanity than any other medical advance in history. The work of Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci and Katalin Karikó has not only played a decisive role in the worldwide containment of the COVID-19 pandemic but has proven the potential of mRNA as a new drug class.