Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Karikó overcame numerous professional setbacks before shooting to stardom as one of the inventors of the mRNA technology used in two Covid-19 vaccines. The scientist, who has been slated as a recipient of the Nobel Prize, talked to Diplomacy&Trade about her love for science, the outcome of the pandemic and the curing power of her invention.
The name Katalin Karikó became known worldwide in a matter of weeks as one of the scientists whose work helped pave the way for the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna coronavirus vaccines. The underlying technology in both is messenger RNA (mRNA), a single-stranded nucleic acid molecule that delivers genetic instructions to the cell’s protein-making factories. In the case of these vaccines, the molecule tells the cells to start producing the harmless spike protein of the virus that teaches the immune system how to take up the fight against the coronavirus. These vaccines help create antibodies and so-called “killer cells” that travel around the body, recognize the virus and the infected cells and eliminate them.
When asked how she felt about being world famous, her answer shed light on her innate modesty. “It seems like a surprise me. So many people contributed to the success of these vaccines. My fellow scientists at BioNTech, experts at Pfizer and Moderna, all of them played crucial roles in the process. The fact that I became a famous person overnight is really the result of the work of many people over many decades,” she said in an exclusive interview with Diplomacy&Trade. The Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines are both based on the discovery of the mRNA she made with her colleague Drew Weissman and published in 2005. Together with Weissman, she holds U.S. patents for application of non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA. This technology was licensed by BioNTech and Moderna to develop their COVID-19 vaccines. “Although RNA was discovered 60 years ago, scientists couldn’t make messenger RNA until 1984-1985. If the coronavirus pandemic emerged 20 years ago, we would have to battle it in a very different manner. There was no gene synthesis at that time; everybody would have needed physical samples from the Chinese colleagues,” Dr. Karikó says.
Karikó grew up in Kisújszállás, Hungary as the daughter of a butcher. “Back in those days, going to the well to get water was the pinnacle of social interaction; that was our chatroom.” After earning her Ph.D. at the University of Szeged, Karikó continued her research and postdoctoral studies at the Institute of Biophysics of the Biological Research Centre of Hungary. The researcher received the pink slip in 1985 after the research institute cut costs and reduced staff. In response, she and her husband decided to move to the United States, bought one-way tickets for the three-member family, sewed all their £900 in their daughter’s teddy bear as it was illegal to take such a ‘large’ sum out of the country and left Hungary behind.
For her entire career, Dr. Karikó has focused on mRNA. Despite a series of professional setbacks, she never lost her resolve to continue her research and she remained convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines. In 1989, she began working at the University of Pennsylvania, where she spent the next 24 years doing research. Germany’s BioNTech offered Dr. Karinkó a job in 2013. She admitted to having spent long nights crying herself to sleep in her apartment in Germany, tormented by uncertainties whether it was the right move to make. She is now the senior vice president of the company that teamed up with Pfizer to develop the world's first COVID-19 vaccine. Her research and specializations include mRNA-based gene therapy, RNA-induced immune reactions, molecular bases of ischemic tolerance, and treatment of brain ischemia. “As long as I’m in the laboratory, I know I’m at home. My husband used to say ‘you are going to the lab not to work but to have fun.’ Science is truly uplifting, it is a source of endless joy,” she says.
Outcome of the pandemic
The official view in the US is that the pandemic can be brought under control by the end of summer provided the vaccination program goes ahead as planned, Dr. Karikó notes. “The numbers are encouraging, over 8 million people were vaccinated over the Easter weekend, including my husband. I couldn’t arrange for him to receive the vaccine earlier, there is no cutting the line here,” she says smiling. Dr. Karikó adds that vaccinations are the only way out of the pandemic, especially as new variants are emerging that are proving dangerous for younger people. “Clinical trials have already been completed for children aged 12-15 and the plan is to have trials for children as young as 5-6 years old.”
The amount of research around the virus is staggering; every hour 11 scientific publications are being published about the coronavirus and the vaccines. “Nevertheless, I realized that average people have very little understanding of the medical aspects of this pandemic and as scientists, we should do a much better job of educating the general public. What we see is that if people are not properly educated and somebody comes with a simple but false explanation, they will believe it. Unfortunately, being vaccinated has become a matter of belief instead of taking into account scientifically sound facts. This shouldn’t turn into a shouting contest where the louder person is believed to be right,” Katalin Karikó says. The fact that the mRNA vaccines boast a 95% efficiency against the virus “is bad news for the virus. The key question is how long the vaccines will protect people. We can see that those people who participated in the clinical trials are still protected after about 7 months. It may turn out that these mRNA vaccines offer protection for several years, but we simply don’t know at this point,” Katalin Karikó says.
Fix somebody forever
Initially, the mRNA technology was intended to be used for developing a flu vaccine. By the end of 2019, animal testing was completed and human trials were about to start when the coronavirus pandemic emerged and all research was directed at this new virus. But scientists continue to look at a wide range of areas where mRNA could be used for treatment, Katalin Karikó says. Clinical trials are running for 4-5 different types of vaccines, not only against viruses, but also parasites like malaria. An mRNA-based vaccine against HIV is very much in focus and work is very advanced on combatting heart diseases with the help of this technology. Other areas of application include treatment of necrotic wounds caused by diabetes as well as rare and infectious diseases. “It is safe to say that cancer research needs more science even though it has the longest history of using mRNA for treatment as work has been underway for decades. I’m convinced that we need further advances in immunology and oncology to take us closer to efficiently fighting cancer. Gene therapy was immensely popular in the 1990s because everyone in science was looking for treatment with permanent changes. The mRNA technology was considered something transient but in fact, this can also change the genome, which means that you can fix somebody for good,” Dr. Karikó says.
Many in the scientific world believe that Dr. Karikó is a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking scientific work. Hungarians have so far won 13 Nobel Prizes. If she were awarded the prestigious prize, Dr. Karikó would be joining the ranks of 11 Nobel laureates of Hungarian origin who received the distinction as nationals of other countries.