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Coronavirus Medicine and Gömböc: How Are Hungarian Scientists’ Inventions Related?

Júlia Tar 2022.02.27.

As it is well-known by now, the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is based on mRNA technology patented by the Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. Hungarian mathematician and engineer Gábor Domonkos created, together with applied mathematician Péter Várkonyi, a new geometric form with two equilibrium points known as the Gömböc. The Gömböc was initially just an interesting discovery, and for a long time, the inventors had no idea whether the shape would be of any use at all, Qubit reports. It seems that the unique shape will be useful now, in connection to the treatment of the coronavirus.

Although there does not seem to be much in common between mRNA technology and the discovery of the Gömböc, it has recently been revealed that scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed their ingestible mRNA vaccine in capsule form, using basic research in two very different fields.


The Gömböc is the first known physical example of a class of convex three-dimensional homogeneous bodies, called mono-monostatic, which, when resting on a flat surface have just one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium.

The existence of this class was conjectured by Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold in 1995 and proven in 2006 by the Hungarian scientists Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi by constructing at first a mathematical example and subsequently a physical example.

The Gömböc has a sharpened top and its shape helped to explain the body structure of some tortoises in relation to their ability to return to an equilibrium position after being placed upside down. The name Gömböc is a diminutive form of gömb (“sphere” in Hungarian). It originally refers to a sausage-like food: seasoned pork filled in pig-stomach, similar to haggis. There is a Hungarian folk tale about an anthropomorphic gömböc that swallows several people whole.

A Gömböc comes in several different colors, sizes, and materials, which can be viewed (and purchased) here. Here is an example of what a polished aluminum one looks like:

Photo via the Facebook page of the Gömböc

At the end of January, chemical engineer Robert Langer and gastroenterologist Giovanni Traverso published a paper combining several basic research findings to present the latest result of their vaccine development. A capsule the size of a blueberry, made of a material that is not yet degradable in the stomach, which, due to its unique weight distribution, relies solely on gravity to navigate to a stable location in the stomach from which the mRNA vaccine can be safely injected into the stomach wall.

I’ve got the Gömböc on my shelf, and I’ve been turning around a lot to understand what it’s all about,”

said Katalin Karikó. Based on a photo, the version she has is this one made of porcelain by the world-famous porcelain manufactory in Herend, Hungary.

“The oral delivery of mRNA has been a focus of interest for some time. I have read in previous communications about specially shaped capsules or medical devices, that do not stick to the stomach but roll on. I think it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how much advantage oral vaccines have over vaccines injected into the muscle. No need to go to the doctor, everyone can take it themselves. People would much rather swallow anything than allow themselves to be stung. There is also much less resistance to the vaccine in oral cases,” Karikó explained.

According to her, it is clear that “science is built on the knowledge of researchers. We are constantly drawing ideas from the work of others. In biology, we look for analogous processes, we look for precedents for different things. That’s why it’s good to read as much as possible about different areas of science. All this knowledge is valuable for hypothesis-driven research, and even for explaining the analysis of data sets.”

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This is not the first time that a medicine will be shaped like the Gömböc. A capsule-shaped device that injects insulin directly into the stomach wall was designed on the basis of the Gömböc as well. The medicine was made by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“As a paper by researchers at MIT and Harvard University points out, a long-standing problem in drug delivery is how to orally ingest active ingredients such as insulin that are destroyed by stomach acid. To solve this problem, considerable research is being focused worldwide. However, the solutions that have been developed so far are not very effective, so only a few percent of the active ingredient is absorbed into the bloodstream,” Gábor Domonkos told Index back in 2019.

“It’s important to know that the Gömböc is a good starting point for designing objects that are always in one direction, even if they are not completely homogeneous. But if the shape is similar to it, it can be transformed into a roly-poly toy with a very small difference in weight distribution,” Domonkos added.

Featured image via the Facebook page of the Gömböc

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