TAIPEI, Taiwan, June 19, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — After the 2014 and 2016 winners for the Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Sciences were crowned the Nobel Prize in 2018 and 2020 respectively, this category has continued to garner much attention worldwide. After much waiting, names of the latest winners were finally announced at ten (GMT+8) in the morning of June 19. This year’s award went to three scientists who played a critical role in the development of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines: Katalin Kariko, Drew Weissman, and Pieter Cullis, “for the discovery of key vaccinology concepts and approaches, leading to the successful development of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine,” according to the selection committee’s citation.
Since November 2019 when the pandemic began, COVID-19 has been disrupting everyone’s life for more than two years, posing a grave threat to human health and life, and causing severe damage to the global economy. The World Health Organization’s statistics show that up to the moment, more than 530 million COVID infections and about 6.3 million deaths have been recorded around the world. Fortunately, it took Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna less than 12 months to successfully develop vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. As a result, millions of lives have been saved, to which the groundbreaking contributions made by these three laureates cannot be ignored. While Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman found a way to reduce the immunogenicity of mRNA, Dr. Cullis is credited with designing lipid nanoparticles for the delivery of mRNA vaccines.
There are two major challenges when it comes to delivering RNA into the human body. First, RNA triggers innate immune responses. Second, it is easily degradable, and hence difficult to reach the target cells or organs. The new platform developed by these three scientists is a nucleoside-modified mRNA-based vaccine that can evade the immune system, thus preventing the severe inflammation which occurs when in vitro-transcribed mRNA is recognized by immune cells. These mRNA molecules are encapsulated in lipid nanoparticles and delivered effectively into the cells. They then instruct the cell’s machinery to produce harmless pieces of spike protein found on the surface of the coronavirus and initiate a series of adaptive immune responses such as triggering B cells to produce antibodies and training T cells to attack infected cells
The breakthrough discoveries of the three laureates and the ingenious approaches they pioneered are key to the rapid and successful development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. These techniques not only revolutionized vaccinology but also signaled a paradigm shift in protein therapy. They represent the advent of a new era of RNA-based therapies. Unlike traditional methods that take a long time and a lot of money to develop vaccines, these new mRNA techniques turn cells into factories where proteins that serve as antigens or therapeutic molecules can be produced. Mass-manufacturing vaccines at relatively low cost became possible. Moreover, they can be applied to tackle a variety of diseases, such as to the development of vaccines against other viruses, of tailored-made vaccines against cancer, of vaccines against HIV, or even of vaccines against allergic diseases.
About the Tang Prize
Since the advent of globalization, mankind has been able to enjoy the convenience brought forth by the advancement of human civilization and science. Yet a multitude of challenges, such as climate change, the emergence of new infectious diseases, wealth gap, and moral degradation, have surfaced along the way. Against this backdrop, Dr. Samuel Yin established the Tang Prize in December 2012. It consists of four award categories, namely Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. Every other year, four independent and professional selection committees, comprising many internationally renowned experts, scholars, and Nobel winners, choose as Tang Prize laureates people who have influenced and made substantive contributions to the world, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or gender. A cash prize of NT$50 million (approx. US$1.7 million) is allocated to each category, with NT$10 million (approx. US$ 0.35 million) of it being a research grant intended to encourage professionals in every field to examine mankind’s most urgent needs in the 21st century, and become leading forces in the development of human society through their outstanding research outcomes and active civic engagement.