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Katalin Karikó: the tenacious force behind the Covid vaccine

Who is Katalin “Kati” Karikó

  • Katalin “Kati” Karikó is a Hungarian-American biochemist renowned for her pioneering work in RNA mechanisms, especially concerning in vitro-transcribed messenger RNA (mRNA) used in protein replacement therapy. Her efforts laid the foundation for developing mRNA vaccines, a feat that faced significant challenges and scepticism in the scientific realm. In 2023, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her groundbreaking work, sharing the honour with American immunologist Drew Weissman.
  • Despite her monumental contributions, Karikó faced numerous professional setbacks. At the University of Pennsylvania, where she spent over twenty years, she dealt with limited support, was demoted, faced salary cuts, and was never granted tenure. The institution even once deemed her as “not of faculty quality.” However, her career trajectory was optimistic when she co-founded and led RNARx from 2006 to 2013. Later, she joined BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, initially as a vice president and later elevated to senior vice president in 2019. She decided to leave BioNTech in 2022 to focus more on research. Karikó was also recognized by the University of Szeged in Hungary in 2021 with an honorary doctorate and subsequently joined them as a professor.
  • One of the significant milestones in Karikó’s research was her collaborative work with Drew Weissman. They discovered nucleoside modifications that reduced RNA’s immunogenicity, enhancing mRNA’s therapeutic potential. This discovery is now patented in the U.S.; companies like BioNTech and Moderna have adopted the technology. Notably, this innovation played a crucial role in creating their COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The mRNA technology, championed by Karikó, and the two prominent vaccines it birthed – BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna – have been instrumental in the global fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Their contribution has been pivotal in curbing the COVID-19 pandemic. In recognition of their work, both Karikó and Weissman have been honoured with multiple accolades, including the Lasker–DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, being named Time Magazine’s Hero of the Year in 2021, and receiving the Tang Prize Award in Biopharmaceutical Science in 2022.

Childhood and Academic Background

  • Katalin Karikó was born in the city of Szolnok and raised in the town of Kisújszállás, Hungary. She grew up in a modest household without basic amenities like running water, a fridge, or a TV. Her father worked as a butcher, while her mother was a bookkeeper. From a young age, Karikó showcased a keen interest in science, and her talent was recognized when she secured third place in a national biology contest in Hungary.
  • She pursued higher education at the University of Szeged, earning a B.Sc. in biology in 1978 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1982. During her academic journey, she collaborated with Jenő Tomasz and conducted postdoctoral research at Hungary’s Institute of Biochemistry, Biological Research Centre (BRC). Between 1978 and 1985, the Communist Hungarian secret police listed her as an intelligence asset. Karikó claims she was coerced into this position due to threats to her career and potential harm to her father. However, she emphasizes that she never actively engaged in espionage or provided them with any information.
People's Republic Study Scholarship.
  • In 1985, her research lab at the BRC faced a financial setback and lost funding. This prompted Karikó to explore opportunities abroad. An invitation from Robert J. Suhadolnik of Temple University in the United States gave her a new path. She moved to the U.S. with her husband and young daughter, carrying with her £900. This money, sourced from the sale of their car and converted to British pounds in an illicit transaction, was cleverly concealed within her daughter’s teddy bear.

Professional Journey

  • From 1985 to 1988, Katalin Karikó was a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University in Philadelphia. During this period, she was involved in a pioneering clinical trial. This trial focused on treating patients with conditions like AIDS, hematologic diseases, and chronic fatigue syndrome using double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). The significance of this research stemmed from the fact that, at that time, the molecular process by which dsRNA induced interferon wasn’t understood, even though the antiviral and antineoplastic effects of interferon were well recognized.
Katalin Karikó, as a PhD student chemically synthesizing RNA in 1980 while working in the RNA laboratory of the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences CREDIT: Katalin Karikó
  • 1988, Karikó decided to join Johns Hopkins University but didn’t notify her lab supervisor, Suhadolnik, about her plans to leave Temple. This episode, detailed in Gregory Zuckerman’s 2021 book “A Shot to Save the World,” took a dramatic turn. Suhadolnik threatened Karikó with deportation and even reported her to U.S. immigration officials, alleging she was in the U.S. unlawfully. The subsequent legal proceedings led Johns Hopkins to retract their job offer. Making matters worse, Suhadolnik continued to tarnish Karikó’s reputation, making it challenging for her to secure positions elsewhere. Her fortunes changed when she connected with a researcher from Bethesda Naval Hospital, who had had disputes with Suhadolnik. Karikó later acknowledged the incident’s accuracy as described by Zuckerman but also expressed gratitude to Suhadolnik for the initial opportunity and the scientific knowledge she gained. Between 1988 and 1989, she worked at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, focusing on signal protein interferons.
  • In 1989, the University of Pennsylvania welcomed Karikó, where she collaborated with cardiologist Elliot Barnathan on messenger RNA (mRNA) research. By 1990, while affiliated as an adjunct professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó proposed an innovative idea in a grant application: establishing mRNA-based gene therapy. Since that proposal, her primary focus has been on mRNA-based medicines. However, during the 1990s, the scientific community grew sceptical about mRNA’s potential. Despite being backed by supporters like Elliot Barnathan (who departed UPenn in 1997) and David Langer (who later employed her), Karikó struggled to secure funding. The University of Pennsylvania, where she seemed poised to rise to a full professorship, demoted her in 1995 due to continuous grant rejections. Undeterred, Karikó remained dedicated to her mRNA research.
katalin karikó rejection letter
Screenshot of the slide with rejection letters to Dr Katalin Kariko from the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Dr. Katalin Kariko.

May 1994 she received two nearly identical letters from two parts of the university rejecting her proposal. “We received many more meritorious proposals than we could possibly fund,” the letters both said.

We know this because, dramatically, she included these rejection letters in her slide show on the history of mRNA research. Not to gloat, she says, but to give hope to other researchers struggling to win support for their work.

“We just have to be braver,” Kariko said.

Source: Click Here

Research and Discoveries

  • In 1997, she met Drew Weissman, a professor of immunology who had recently arrived at the University of Pennsylvania. They began to exchange ideas and then to collaborate. Weissman’s funding was critical in helping Karikó to continue and extend her research, and the combination of Weissman’s immunology and Karikó’s biochemistry was highly effective. They began to move the technology forward, solving problems individually and eventually gaining recognition. Weissman has commented, “We had to fight the entire way.” Karikó’s persistence was noted as exceptional against the norms of academic research work conditions.

Kate was really just unbelievable… She was always incredibly inquisitive. She read voraciously. She would always know the latest technology or the latest paper, even if it was in a totally different area, and she’d put two and two together and say, ‘Well why don’t we do this?’ Or, ‘Why don’t we try this formulation?’

— Elliot Barnathan

  • Before 2005, there was a significant hurdle in the therapeutic application of mRNA: its use in living organisms often triggered inflammatory responses. A crucial breakthrough occurred when Karikó noticed that transfer RNA (tRNA), used as a control in a test, didn’t elicit the same immune reaction as mRNA. Starting in 2005, a sequence of pivotal studies showed that while synthetic mRNA was highly inflammatory, tRNA was not. Together with Weissman, Karikó discovered that making specific nucleoside modifications in mRNA could dampen this immune response, particularly by substituting uridine with pseudouridine. Their groundbreaking work on the chemical alteration of mRNA to make it nonimmunogenic was initially turned down by prominent journals like Nature and Science but was later accepted by Immunity.
  • Another significant contribution from the duo was devising a method to encapsulate mRNA in lipid nanoparticles, introducing an innovative drug delivery system for mRNA. This approach involves enclosing the mRNA within minuscule fat droplets or lipid nanoparticles, safeguarding the delicate molecule until it reaches its target in the body. This technique proved successful in animal tests.
  • Karikó and Weissman then established a company named RNARx. Between 2006 and 2013, they secured patents for utilising modified nucleosides to diminish the antiviral immune response to mRNA. Not long after, the University of Pennsylvania transferred the intellectual property license to Gary Dahl, who led a lab supply firm that later evolved into Cellscript. Shortly after this transition, Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital firm backing Moderna, approached Karikó for a license. To their disappointment, Karikó informed them that the permit had already been taken.
  • 2006 Karikó approached biochemist Ian MacLachlan, hoping to collaborate on the chemically altered mRNA. At first, MacLachlan and his company, Tekmira, weren’t interested. Karikó was keen on partnering with MacLachlan, recognizing his leading role in advancing mRNA technology and her ambition to perfect the lipid nanoparticle delivery system that shields mRNA.
  • In early 2013, news of Moderna’s $240 million collaboration with AstraZeneca to develop an mRNA-based Vascular endothelial growth factor caught Karikó’s attention. Recognizing that her mRNA expertise might not be fully expressed at the University of Pennsylvania, she joined BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals as a vice president. By 2019, she had risen to senior vice president while retaining her adjunct professorship at the University.
  • As of October 2023, Karikó holds a professorship at the University of Szeged in Hungary.

Recognitions and Accolades

Nobel prize medal
Nobel Prize Medal

Karikó’s scientific contributions have far-reaching effects, spanning areas like developing pluripotent stem cells, mRNA-based gene therapies, and the introduction of a novel category of drugs.

Her groundbreaking work paved the way for companies like BioNTech and Moderna to develop therapeutic mRNAs that bypass the body’s immune response. In 2020, the technology pioneered by Karikó and Weissman played a central role in producing COVID-19 vaccines by BioNTech in partnership with Pfizer and Moderna. These mRNA vaccines were rolled out rapidly, showcasing an impressive efficacy rate of over 90%. Beyond just vaccines for infectious diseases, the potential of mRNA extends to potential treatments for cancer, cardiovascular conditions, metabolic ailments, and ischemia.

Recognitions and Accolades

Karikó has been honoured with over 130 international awards and recognitions, celebrating her groundbreaking and globally impactful contributions to biochemistry.

On October 2, 2023, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences proclaimed that Katalin Karikó, along with Drew Weissman, were the esteemed recipients of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, awarded for their revolutionary development of mRNA technology.

In 2023, in acknowledgement of her extraordinary research in messenger RNA, Karikó was also honoured to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Private Life

Katalin Karikó is wedded to Béla Francia, and they proudly parent Susan Francia, a rower who clinched two Olympic gold medals. In February 2021, their daughter and her husband, architect Ryan Amos, welcomed a son in the U.S., making Katalin and Béla grandparents.

Public Appearances and Autobiography

In April 2021, The New York Times they featured her career, laying the groundwork for mRNA vaccines to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 10 2021, The Daily podcast from The New York Times highlighted Karikó’s career, emphasizing the many challenges she had to overcome before her work was recognized.

In 2023, two children’s books were released about her: Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines, by Debbie Dadey and Juliana Oakley, and Kati’s Tiny Messengers: Dr. Katalin Karikó and the Battle Against COVID-19, by Megan Hoyt and Vivien Mildenberger.

Katalin Karikó’s autobiography was published by Crown Publishing Group on October 10, just days after she won the Nobel Prize. It is titled Breaking Through: My Life in Science.

Selected publications

Disclaimer: All information about Dr. Katalin Karikó is for informational purposes only. While every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, this content might not reflect changes or updates. Please refer to primary sources for the most up-to-date information.

Frequently Asked Questions

Katalin Karikó is a Hungarian-born biochemist and RNA researcher. She is renowned for her pioneering work on messenger RNA (mRNA) and its applications in the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Katalin Karikó’s groundbreaking research focused on overcoming the challenges associated with the use of mRNA in therapeutics. Her work laid the foundation for the development of mRNA-based vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
Karikó’s research on modified mRNA molecules enabled the development of highly effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines. Her contributions paved the way for the rapid development of mRNA-based vaccines, which played a critical role in the global response to the pandemic.
Yes, Katalin Karikó has received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to science and medicine. These include the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research, election to the National Academy of Sciences and The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023.
Katalin Karikó is currently serving as a Senior Vice President at BioNTech SE, a leading biotechnology company involved in the development of mRNA-based vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine developed in collaboration with Pfizer.

Reference List

  1.  Kolata, Gina (8 April 2021). “Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus”The New York TimesISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2 October 2023.
  2. ^ Keyton, David; Corder, Mike; Burakoff, Maddie (2 October 2023). “Karikó and Weissman win Nobel Prize in medicine for work that enabled mRNA vaccines against COVID-19”AP NewsAssociated Press. Retrieved 3 October 2023.
  3. Jump up to:a b c Hogan, Michael J.; Pardi, Norbert (27 January 2022). “mRNA Vaccines in the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond”Annual Review of Medicine73 (1): 17–39. doi:10.1146/annurev-med-042420-112725ISSN 0066-4219PMID 34669432S2CID 239050929.
  4. Jump up to:a b Schmader, Toni (18 January 2023). “Gender Inclusion and Fit in STEM”Annual Review of Psychology74 (1): 219–243. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-032720-043052ISSN 0066-4308PMID 35961037S2CID 251539765.
  5. ^ “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023”NobelPrize.org. Retrieved 2 October 2023.
  6. ^ Mole, Beth (2 October 2023). “After being demoted and forced to retire, mRNA researcher wins Nobel”Ars Technica. Retrieved 3 October 2023.
  7. Jump up to:a b “Katalin Karikó”8th International mRNA Health Conference. Retrieved 10 January 2021.
  8. Jump up to:a b c d e f g De George, Matthew (2021). “The Vaccine Trenches” (PDF)The Pennsylvania Gazette. No. May/June. pp. 42–49.
  9. ^ Zuckerman, Gregory (4 October 2023). “After Shunning Scientist, University of Pennsylvania Celebrates Her Nobel Prize”WSJ. Retrieved 5 October 2023.
  10. ^ Zahneis, Megan (5 October 2023). “Penn Demoted Her. Then she won the Nobel Prize. On Katalin Karikó’s triumphant vindication”The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  11. Jump up to:a b c d e Amanda B Keener (1 September 2018). “Just the messenger”. Nature Medicine24 (9): 1297–1300. doi:10.1038/S41591-018-0183-7ISSN 1078-8956PMID 30139958S2CID 52074565Wikidata Q91114205.
  12. ^ “Forscherin verlässt Biontech”FAZ.NET. Frankfurter Allgemeine. Retrieved 2 October 2023.
  13. ^ “Biontech’s Karikó to Be Awarded Honorary Doctorate by University of Szeged”Hungary Today. 27 January 2021.
  14. Jump up to:a b “Nobel Prize goes to scientists behind mRNA Covid vaccines”BBC News. 2 October 2023. Retrieved 2 October 2023.
  15. Jump up to:a b Katalin Karikó; Michael Buckstein; Houping Ni; Drew Weissman (August 2005). “Suppression of RNA recognition by Toll-like receptors: the impact of nucleoside modification and the evolutionary origin of RNA”. Immunity23 (2): 165–75. doi:10.1016/J.IMMUNI.2005.06.008ISSN 1074-7613PMID 16111635Wikidata Q24316383.
  16. ^ Bart R. Anderson; Hiromi Muramatsu; Subba R Nallagatla; Philip C. Bevilacqua; Lauren H. Sansing; Drew WeissmanKatalin Karikó (10 May 2010). “Incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA enhances translation by diminishing PKR activation”Nucleic Acids Research38 (17): 5884–5892. doi:10.1093/NAR/GKQ347ISSN 0305-1048PMC 2943593PMID 20457754Wikidata Q34146278.
  17. ^ Katalin Karikó; Hiromi Muramatsu; Frank A Welsh; János Ludwig; Hiroki Kato; Shizuo AkiraDrew Weissman (16 September 2008). “Incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA yields superior nonimmunogenic vector with increased translational capacity and biological stability”Molecular Therapy16 (11): 1833–1840. doi:10.1038/MT.2008.200ISSN 1525-0016PMC 2775451PMID 18797453Wikidata Q37416925.
  18. Jump up to:a b c Kollewe, Julia (21 November 2020). “Covid vaccine technology pioneer: ‘I never doubted it would work'”The Guardian. Retrieved 22 November 2020.
  19. Jump up to:a b Garde, Damian; Saltzman, Jonathan (10 November 2020). “The story of mRNA: From a loose idea to a tool that may help curb Covid”STAT. Retrieved 10 January 2021.
  20. ^ Avril, Tom (10 January 2023). “Penn scientists are honored for mRNA research used in COVID vaccines”Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 21 July 2023.

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Tanzir Islam Britto

My name is Tanzir Islam Britto. Professionally I am a Physician, an amateur writer, and an engaged social media activist. My journey in the field of medicine began at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical College (BSMMC), formerly known as Faridpur Medical College, where I started my Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), which I have completed at Shahabuddin Medical College(SMC).

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