Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, two University of Pennsylvania researchers, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday for their research on mRNA technology, which was eventually used to create the leading COVID-19 vaccines.
Penn was quick to highlight its own connection to the honor in social media posts and marketing blasts. But the researchers themselves have said Penn underfunded and deprioritized mRNA research in its formative years.
In 2020 Karikó told Wired that in the late 1990s, while she was struggling with a recent cancer diagnosis, the university offered her a choice between demotion and abandoning her mRNA studies; she chose the demotion, and a pay cut, to continue pursuing the research.
Those weren’t the only challenges Karikó faced in pursuing research on mRNA’s potential. In 2005, after she and Weissman published the paper that would go on to support the research that led to the COVID vaccines, she said “there was no interest” from other academic medical researchers or established biopharma companies.
Both Karikó and Weissman remain on Penn’s faculty and appeared at a university press conference Monday to discuss the award.