Wolf Prize in Medicine Goes to RNA Researchers Whose Work Enabled Development of COVID-19 Vaccines

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A man receives a coronavirus vaccine in Tel Aviv, developed as a result of discoveries by 2021 Wolf Prize winners in medicine.
A man receives a coronavirus vaccine in Tel Aviv, developed as a result of discoveries by 2021 Wolf Prize winners in medicine.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

This year’s Wolf Prize in medicine has been awarded Tuesday to three researchers whose discoveries substantially contributed to the understanding of the cell and the production of proteins – research that led to major medical breakthroughs, including the basis for the RNA-based COVID-19 vaccines.

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The winners of the prize conferred by the Israel-based Wolf Foundation are Professors Joan Steitz of Yale University, Lynne Maquat of the University of Rochester and Adrian Krainer of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory. 

The acclaimed prize, awarded "for achievements in the interest of mankind," is given out each year in different categories of the arts and sciences, and laureates receive 100,000 dollars. The Israeli foundation has awarded the prize to 354 scientists and artists since its inception, and about a third of Wolf Prize laureates go on to receive Nobel Prizes as well. The prize is usually awarded at a ceremony held at Israel's Knesset, though this year's plans have not yet been announced. 

The three scientists directed research that led to discoveries in basic RNA biology, as well as groundbreaking discoveries in deciphering and understanding its regulation mechanisms. 

Joan Argetsinger Steitz receives the Great Medal of The French Academy of Sciences in Paris, in 2013.Credit: Francois Mori/AP

The laureates discovered that these molecules are not passive players in the creation of proteins, a process that begins with DNA in the cell nucleus. They demonstrated that RNA plays a dominant role in gene expression and regulation in this process, and is not, as previously believed, a technical component with little impact.  

The prize jury wrote that the discoveries “have greatly advanced modern medicine and personalized medicine. Their contribution to humanity is of the highest significance and is especially apparent now, with the development of RNA-based vaccines against the coronavirus.”

Joan Steitz is an American professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University in Connecticut, and an investigator at the university’s Hughes Medical Institute. She began her research on RNA in the 1960s, and was the first to discover and define the sites of RNA protein translation in prokaryotic, organisms – microscopic, single-cell organisms lacking a natural nucleus. In 1969, she discovered important information about the critical roles of small, non-coding RNA molecules in the process of producing proteins, and even shed light on the biochemical mechanisms that regulate RNA stability.  

Lynne Maquat is an American professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Rochester in New York State whose research focuses on the cell mechanisms of human diseases. She is receiving the prize for discovering a mechanism, which destroys mutant mRNA in cells – the so-called non-sense mediated mRNA decay (NMD).

Adrian Krainer is a Uruguyan-American professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. He is receiving the prize for his central contribution to the understanding of molecular and regulatory mechanisms of RNA splicing, after he identified and isolated the first human splicing protein and demonstrated its roles. Krainer has since used this knowledge to research two genes associated with spinal muscular atrophy, leading to the first treatment for it.  

The prize in chemistry is being awarded to two professors from the Weizmann institute in Rehovot, South Africa-born Prof. Leslie Leiserowitz and Bulgarian-Israeli Prof. Meir Lahav, for their joint work in the study of crystals.

Their research shed light on the formation of crystals, and succeeded in explaining various phenomena in biological systems, such as the crystalline structures formed in diseases, and the ability to prevent these processes. Their work is the basis of medical treatments for malaria, gallstones, atherosclerosis, and others, some of which have saved lives.

The prize in physics is being awarded to Italian Prof. Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University in Rome for his "pioneering discoveries in quantum field theory, statistical mechanics, and complex systems," the Wolf Foundation said.  

The prize in music is being awarded to Olga Neuwirth for her "incomparable tonal language and exploration of new musical forms," as explained by the foundation, and to Stevie Wonder, "Who has enriched the lives of generations of music lovers."

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