She was Demoted, Doubted and Rejected But Now Her Work is the Basis of the Covid-19 Vaccine

The foundation of the COVID-19 vaccine, and many others, can be drawn back to the work of an intrepid immigrant to the United States from Hungary, whose never-say-die attitude and belief in her work led to one of the most important technological developments in vaccine research.

Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó is now being talked about for a Nobel Prize, but life wasn’t always so congratulatory for her, and the story about how she practically invented mRNA and RNA-derived therapies and vaccines—the basis of so many lifesaving treatments—was filled with challenges.

When Karikó left her native Hungary with husband and young child, she had just $1,200 stuffed in her daughter’s teddy bear. Now, after years of her work developing mRNA and RNA technologies, she is the senior vice-president for the German pharmaceutical giant BioNTech, and her work has received more than 12,000 academic citations.

After graduating with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Szeged, she afterwards embarked on a research career at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

However, after getting laid off, Karikó subsequently relocated to the United States after receiving an invitation from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1985. She would eventually transfer to University of Pennsylvania, which would end up being an extremely difficult period.

In that time, messenger RNA research was extremely popular, but shortly after she arrived, the method for using a virus’s genetic material to command a human body to duplicate certain proteins to fight the virus was considered too radical, and too financially risky to fund.

The failed grant applications began piling up on Karikó’s desk, but she was not deterred.

Ten years after she arrived in Philadelphia, she was demoted from her position at UPenn and was then diagnosed with cancer.

“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” she told Stat, a health news site, in November. “I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else. I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough.”

Along with another immunologist called Drew Weissman, the pair finally received patents for their mRNA technology in 2012, but after receiving yet more trouble from UPenn, Karikó took a job at BioNTech, a German company founded, perhaps fittingly, also by immigrants.

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Is it a coincidence that the first and most widespread COVID-19 vaccine was produced by this company? In reality it was Karikó and Weissman, repeatedly underestimated or dismissed by Pennsylvania academics, that partnered their method of mRNA gene-therapy with the expertise of Pfizer, to create the vaccine that has already protected millions of people.

The pair are being talked about for a Nobel Prize, including by famed British intellectual Richard Dawkins and Moderna CEO Derek Rossi.

This year they’ve already scooped up the Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medicine.

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“Through their painstaking research into mRNA—and persistence despite setbacks— Weissman and Karikó laid the groundwork for vaccines that will save countless lives,” said Director of the Rosenstiel Center for Research on Basic Medical Sciences.

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In an interview with CNN, Karikó, with eyes as blue as sea glacier ice, explained that the time for awards and celebrations will come at another time, when the pandemic she will be chiefly responsible for ending, indeed ends.

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