Dr. Katalin Karikó: Inventing a vaccine to stop a pandemic
Dr. Katalin Karikó
Biochemist who pioneered mRNA, the technology behind the successful COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
Ink drawing on a map of Philadelphia, PA. The University of Pennsylvania where she did much of her research is located near her chin.
Doubted and then demoted by academic leaders, denied grants, and derided by her peers, Katalin Kariko’s journey from disregarded scholar to world savior was a four-decade struggle. Introduced to the concept of messenger RNA (mRNA) during her undergraduate, she quickly saw the possibilities and pursued a PHD in the field, beginning in 1978. Ultimately, her research served as the basis of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines.
In 1985, Karikó left her native Hungary with her husband, two-year-old daughter, and $1,200 sewn into teddy bear (proceeds from selling the family car on the black market). She continued her research at Temple University before moving to the University of Pennsylvania in 1989. All the while, rejected grant applications piled up on Karikó’s desk. She said her mRNA research was “too novel” to get funded.
By 1995, her bosses at the university were growing impatient with the lack of funding and offered a humiliating choice: leave or be demoted to adjunct from her prestigious tenure-track position. With the demotion came a substantial pay cut. The same week, she was diagnosed with cancer.
“Usually, at that point, people just say ‘goodbye’ and leave because it’s so horrible,” she says. But Karikó wasn’t like usual people. Undeterred by the setbacks, she doggedly continued in her research. One year, she recalled realizing in May that she had worked every day that year, including New Year’s Day, even sleeping in the office sometimes.
A few years later, a chance meeting with Drew Weissman at a photocopier changed the course of her career. A respected immunologist, Weissman was intrigued with Karikó’s research. More important, he had the funding to finance her experiments in his lab. This partnership “gave me optimism and kept me going,” says Karikó. “My salary was lower than the tech who worked next to me, but Drew was supportive and that’s what I concentrated on.”
In 2005, Karikó finally had a breakthrough. On paper, mRNA was simple, in reality injecting synthetic mRNA often led to disastrous immune responses from subjects. Karikó and Weissman figured out how to sneak mRNA into cells without triggering the alarm bells. This paved the way for vaccines and other future therapies with mRNA.
Despite this success, the University of Pennsylvania told Karikó in 2013 she was “not of faculty quality.” She left to become Senior Vice President at BioNTech, a nascent German biotech firm. “When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.’”
Her career’s research has since served as the basis of the highly effective COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
She screamed, “Redemption!” upon hearing the news the vaccine was effective. “I was grabbing the air, I got so excited I was afraid I might die or something. I never doubted it would work.”
She celebrated by eating a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts. “
Background on mRNA:
The focus of Karikó’s career was mRNA, a single-stranded messenger molecule that delivers instructions from the DNA in the cell’s nucleus to the protein-making centers called ribosomes. Without mRNA, DNA would be useless, leading some to call mRNA the “software of life.”
MRNA offers a way for the body to heal itself and its promise will likely be realized in ways far beyond the current COVID-19 vaccine application. With the COVID-19 vaccine, the mRNA tells cells to create harmless spike proteins to prepare the immune system to fight against coronavirus’ spikes. Other possibilities include other vaccines, treating cancer, and diseases like cystic fibrosis.
This episode contains music by Geovane Bruno, Coma Media, Hot_Music, Oleksandr Savochka, and 24414830.
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