Katalin Karikó, Hungarian Biochemist Who Co-Developed Basis for COVID-19 Vaccine
Katalin Karikó was born in Kisújszállás, Hungary in 1955. She grew up with a typical country life in Eastern Europe and went to pursue higher education at the University of Szeged, where she stayed to earn her Ph.D. She became a biochemist, spending most of her time studying and conducting research in the lab. Being the simple and introverted person she was, Karikó planned to stay in Hungary her whole life whilst all of her friends and colleagues moved abroad to find new job opportunities.
It was not until 1985 when she was fired from Szeged Biological Research Center that she was forced to seek new openings in a foreign country. Although she originally wanted to find a position in Europe, circumstances drove her overseas, where she ended up becoming a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. After 3 years of working there, she moved to Washington for a brief period before teaching at one of the most prestigious universities in the world: University of Pennsylvania.
However, she initially struggled to find work outside of her home country. In an interview with Zoltán Torontáli from G7, she advised that finding success in another country required starting again from scratch. There was “the constant struggle for our lives, for our survival and our success.” Back home, scientists would need connections abroad because without those, making it on their own would have been close to impossible. However, Karikó persevered and took a chance on herself, and she was ultimately able to continue the research she was passionate about with a fulfilling and high-paying job in the United States. She revealed herself that “if I had stayed in Hungary, I would be a complaining mediocre scientist.”
In 1990, she applied for her first grant for the mRNA test but was told that it would not lead anywhere. With hindsight, we can see that this was a huge mistake as her research is vital in developing a vaccine for COVID-19, but many did not see that at the time. Karikó was rejected from grants for eighty years, but she was determined and confident in the potential of her work.
It was the year of 1998, which marked the change for Karikó and our knowledge in mRNA. She began working with Drew Weismann, an immunologist, who saw her potential. They cooperated under a small fund for scientific discovery of $100,000. In later years, she earned more attention when others saw the success of her work in its early stages. She then gained millions of dollars to continue her experiment, which could help find a cure for COVID-19.
As 2020 comes to a close, we all know about the race to develop a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 between four main competitors: SinoVac Biotech, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Gamaleya Institute. Because of the thorough base work she put into her earlier research, Karikó is now the Senior Vice President of BioNTech, the ‘Usain Bolt of the Drug race.’ Those who saw the potential in Karikó’s mRNA research noted that it would be instrumental in helping speed up the process of creating vaccines. Test results showed 90% of candidates became fully immune to the coronavirus.
As she is only 65 years of age, Karikó has a bright future and years ahead to continue with this promising mRNA research. Who knows what vaccines she will develop next? As for now, Karikó has a legacy as part of the team who found a vaccine for a deadly disease, which will undoubtedly save countless lives and have a profound impact on humanity.
by Ha Nguyen
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