The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2022 has been awarded to Katalin Karikó (pictured left), University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA, Özlem Türeci (pictured center), and Uğur Şahin (pictured right), both BioNTech SE, Mainz, Germany. The three researchers are honored for their achievements in the development of messenger RNA (mRNA) for preventive and therapeutic purposes. This technology has, for example, played a key role in the rapid development of a highly effective vaccine against COVID-19.
The Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize is Germany’s most renowned medical award and comes with an endowment of EUR 120,000. It is traditionally awarded on Paul Ehrlich’s birthday, March 14, in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The award honors scientists who have made special contributions in areas of research related to Paul Ehrlich’s achievements, i.e., in immunology, cancer research, hematology, microbiology, or chemotherapy.
mRNAs are messenger molecules that carry genetic information from the DNA in the cell nucleus to the ribosomes in the cytoplasm, where the information is used to construct proteins. Unlike DNA therapeutics, mRNA does not have to enter the cell’s nucleus to exert its effect and does not integrate into the genome of its target cell.
In contrast to DNA, mRNA is very unstable. In addition, our immune system normally regards externally applied mRNA as an unwanted intruder, which can inhibit the translation of externally derived mRNA. Karikó achieved a decisive breakthrough here: She discovered how to blunt the body’s own defense response against synthetic mRNA, and consequently, how to significantly increase intracellular protein production.
Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci focused on developing cancer vaccines, including truly individualized ones, to present a patient’s immune system with the antigens of their own tumor to stimulate target-specific effects. They aimed to solve the basic mRNA-associated problem of short-lived protein production. They developed a series of optimized designs for various structural components of mRNA, thereby significantly increasing both its intracellular stability and its translational efficiency. They further improved vaccine efficacy via strategies to deliver RNA into dendritic cells located in lymphoid tissues using a lipid nanoparticle formulation.
These breakthrough improvements formed the basis for the successful use of mRNA for various human applications. During the last years, BioNTech has made significant progress in the clinical application of cancer vaccines. The knowledge gained in the development of cancer vaccines also decisively contributed to the rapid availability of a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine. The non-immunogenic mRNA modifications Karikó discovered made it easier to develop a highly effective COVID-19 vaccine in a comparably short time.
Katalin Karikó, born on January 17, 1955, in Szolnok, Hungary, studied biology at the University of Szeged, where she received her Ph.D. in 1982. After a postdoctoral stay at the Biological Research Centre (BRC) of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Szeged, she moved to the United States in 1985. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA, from 1985 to 1988, and at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, USA, from 1988 to 1989. Karikó serves as Senior Vice President of BioNTech AG in Mainz, Germany, as Professor at the University of Szeged, and as an Adjunct Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania.
Katalin Karikó has received numerous awards, including the Japan Prize in 2022, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences 2022, the Széchenyi Prize 2021, the Wilhelm Exner Medal in 2021, the Semmelweis Prize 2021, the Princess of Asturias Award 2021, and the Rosenstiel Award in 2020, and is a Member of the Academia Europaea.
Özlem Türeci was born in Siegen, Germany, in 1967. She studied medicine at Saarland University in Homburg, Germany, and received her doctorate in 1992. She completed her habilitation at the University of Mainz in 2002. Starting in 2001, she served as CEO and Chief Medical Officer of Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG. Türeci is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech. She also serves as Professor for Personalized Immunotherapy at the University Medical Center Mainz and the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology Mainz (HI-TRON) and as President of the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy (CIMT) in Germany.
Among many other honors, Türeci has received the German Sustainability Award in 2020, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Princess of Asturias Award in the category Scientific Research, the Aydın Doğan Award, the William B. Coley Award from the Cancer Research Institute, New York, USA, and the German Future Prize, all in 2021.
Uğur Şahin was born in İskenderun, Turkey, in 1965. He studied medicine at the University of Cologne, Germany, where he completed his doctorate in 1992. He completed his habilitation in molecular medicine and immunology in 1999. Starting in 2001, he worked at the University Medical Center Mainz. He serves as Professor in Translational Oncology & Immunology at the University of Mainz. He holds the role of Chairman of the Scientific Management Board of the Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON), also in Mainz. He is Co-Founder and CEO of BioNTech.
Şahin has received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Merit Award of the American Society of Oncology in 1995, the Calogero Paglierello Research Award in 1997, the Georges Köhler Prize from the German Society of Immunology in 2005, the Mustafa Prize and the German Cancer Award in 2019, the German Sustainability Award in 2020, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Princess of Asturias Award in the category Scientific Research, the William B. Coley Award, and the German Future Prize, all in 2021.
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Also of Interest
- Interview with Ingmar Hoerr, Pioneer of mRNA Technology,
Vera Koester, Ingmar Hoerr,
As a Ph.D. student, Hoerr discovered that mRNA can be used as a therapeutic vaccine or agent when administered directly into tissues
- Clever Picture: Comparing COVID-19 Vaccines