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A biochemist who specializes in mRNA mechanisms. Co-patented the technology that allowed the fast and potent development of the Covid-19 Vaccine.
Katalin Karikó was born in Szolnok, Hungary, and grew up in a small town in Central-East Hungary. She studied biochemistry at the University of Szeged, focusing her Ph.D. on molecular biology and Messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). A molecule that transmits genetic information and leads to a synthesis of specific proteins.
In 1982, at the age of 27, Karikó completed her postdoctoral studies at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biological Research Centre of Hungary, where she examined mRNA therapy and ways it could tackle viruses. Three years later, she left communist Hungary and immigrated to the US with her husband and toddler daughter. She continued her research at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science, Bethesda, Maryland. In 1989, at the age of 34, Karikó began to work at the School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania.
By the 1990s, mRNA research improved, but the main obstacle has not yet been solved – the synthetic mRNA generated severe inflammatory reactions and could not be used in human therapy. Karikó was determined to find the solution and proposed to research mRNA to treat strokes and cystic fibrosis. She did not get research grants and got demoted to a rank of a researcher.
In 1997, at the age of 42, Karikó teamed up with Drew Weissman, an immunology professor who worked, at the time, on an HIV vaccine. They realized that they need to identify which of the four nucleosides (the mRNA building blocks) in the mRNA is causing the inflammatory response and replace it with something else, so that the synthetic mRNA can be used for gene therapy. In 2005, Karikó and Weissman published their discovery in a series of articles that did not receive much attention. However, based on their articles, a Canadian stem cell biologist, Derrick Rossi, co-founded Moderna, producing mRNA-based medicines and vaccines. At the same time, Karikó and Weissman founded their own company, in which Karikó served as chief executive. In 2013, after three decades of research, Karikó received patents for modified nucleosides RNA. Soon after, the University of Pennsylvania sold the patent’s license to a third party who supported the Moderna company, and Karikó and Weissman could not apply their research on the clinical stage.
At 58, Karikó realized that she could not proceed with her research at the university, so she took a job offer from a small German company named BioNTech, serving as senior vice president. In 2018, BioNTech partnered with the American pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer. In 2020, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, both Moderna and Pfizer used Karikó’s and Weissman’s mRNA technology to produce a vaccine for the virus. The mRNA-based vaccines were proved as the most potent solution to prevent the Coronavirus, and in November 2020, under Karikó’s leadership, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their coronavirus vaccine is over 90% effective, giving hope to the world population that things will get back to normal.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- Her father was a butcher.
- When she left Hungary, she was not allowed to take money out of the country, so she hid money in her daughter’s teddy bear.
- Her daughter is the Olympic gold medalist Susan Francia.
- She and Drew Weissman are the favorites to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
- In addition to her roles as BioNTech’s senior vice-president, she is also an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
More About Her Legacy
* Rosenstiel Award (2021)
* For Human Dignity Award (2021)
* Wilhelm Exner Medal (2021)
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One of Her Landmarks
Photo credit - Wikipedia