ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF NEUROSURGERY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
Katalin karikó admits that at the beginning of 2020, when word began to spread of a novel virus called COVID-19, she really didn’t think it would turn into a pandemic. She was as surprised as anyone. But there was one difference: She was ready. She’d been getting ready, in a sense, for almost 40 years.
Karikó, a molecular biologist, had been working since her student days on messenger RNA—mRNA for short—a compound in living cells that carries genetic instructions for making proteins for all sorts of purposes. It has turned out to be the key ingredient in the COVID-19 vaccines jointly made by Pfizer and BioNTech, and by their competitor Moderna.
“I thought this would be good for something,” she says now. “I hoped that maybe I would live long enough to see one person who would benefit.”
It has not been an easy path. Born and educated in Hungary, she came with her husband and daughter to Philadelphia in 1985, hoping to work her way up as a research scientist studying mRNA at Temple University. But what was the stuff good for? Stroke patients? Cancers? Cystic fibrosis? Diabetes? All of these and more, at least in theory, but mRNA was stubbornly difficult to work with, and early experiments failed. So grant money was hard to come by, and without funding, the American system is unforgiving to young Ph.Ds. In a few years she moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where she bounced from lab to lab, once taking a demotion when more senior scientists couldn’t afford to keep her.
Then, in 1998, waiting to use a copying machine, she got to talking with Dr. Drew Weissman, an immunologist who was trying to develop a vaccine for HIV, and thought her experience with mRNA might be helpful. They began to work together.
One of the difficulties with mRNA was that while it can get a cell to make all sorts of proteins, it can also provoke a strong inflammatory reaction. In 2005, Karikó and Weissman found a way to modify it so that it wouldn’t—a critical advance in making mRNA vaccines possible. The medical world paid little attention at the time, but by 2013 she got a job offer from BioNTech, then a small German startup. They began to produce mRNA vaccines. When COVID-19 appeared and its genetic code was deciphered, Karikó’s colleagues were able to develop the chemistry for a shot in less than a day.
“By that time, we knew,” says Karikó. There still needed to be clinical trials in the U.S. and other countries, but the science behind mRNA vaccines had been established. “No matter what vaccination we did—influenza, herpes, HIV—mRNA was so much better than anything available.”
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