Tenacious curiosity in the lab can lead to a Nobel Prize – mRNA research exemplifies the unpredictable value of basic scientific research
The 2023 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine will go to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for their discovery that modifying mRNA – a form of genetic material your body uses to produce proteins – could reduce unwanted inflammatory responses and allow it to be delivered into cells. While the impact of their findings may not have been apparent at the time of their breakthrough over a decade ago, their work paved the way for the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, as well as many other therapeutic applications currently in development.
We asked André O. Hudson, a biochemist and microbiologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, to explain how basic research like that of this year’s Nobel Prize winners provides the foundations for science – even when its far-reaching effects won’t be felt until years later.
What is basic science?
Basic research, sometimes called fundamental research, is a type of investigation with the overarching goal of understanding natural phenomena like how cells work or how birds can fly. Scientists are asking the fundamental questions of how, why, when, where and if in order to bridge a gap in curiosity and understanding about the natural world.
Researchers sometimes conduct basic research with the hope of eventually developing a technology or drug based on that work. But what many scientists typically do in academia is ask fundamental questions with answers that may or may not ever lead to practical applications.
Humans, and the animal kingdom as a whole, are wired to be curious. Basic research scratches that itch.
What are some basic science discoveries that went on to have a big influence on medicine?
The 2023 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine acknowledges basic science work done in the early 2000s. Karikó and Weissman’s discovery about modifying mRNA to reduce the body’s inflammatory response to it allowed other researchers to leverage it to make improved vaccines.
Another example is the discovery of antibiotics, which was based on an unexpected observation. In the late 1920s, the microbiologist Alexander Fleming was growing a species of bacteria in his lab and found that his Petri dish was accidentally contaminated with the fungus Penicillium notatum. He noticed that wherever the fungus was growing, it impeded or inhibited the growth of the bacteria. He wondered why that was happening and subsequently went on to isolate penicillin, which was approved for medical use in the early 1940s.
This work fed into more questions that ushered in the age of antibiotics. The 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Selman Waksman for his discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic to treat tuberculosis.