Katalin Karikó, the famous Hungarian biochemist who was crucial in the creation of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, held a presentation at the 194th conference of the Hungarian Academy of Science (MTA) on Monday. Her speech mostly focused on her scientific works, so for better understanding we’ve complemented that with personal details of her career, with the help of a publication by Wired Magazine.
The focus of her presentation was on the creation of messenger RNA therapy, but she also spoke about her experience as a researcher and student in Hungary.
An Ambitious Endeavor from the Beginning
Karikó began her studies at the University of Szeged, hearing about messenger RNA for the first time in 1976. She involved herself in multiple research opportunities to bolster her PhD studies in how mRNA could be used to target viruses, and was able to secure a scholarship with the Hungarian Academy of Science from 1978 to 1980.
In 1985 she moved to the United States with her family, working at Temple University in Philadelphia, moving to Pennsylvania University four years later.
Karikó had a lot of difficulty generating funding for her research, since the topic she focused on, using mRNA to create new vaccines and drugs for chronic illnesses, was not as popular a topic as one may think today.
A significant hurdle in her research was the severe inflammatory response from the immune system that occurred in mammals after they were injected with mRNA, making human trials impossible.
The University eventually gave her an ultimatum, saying that if she continued her work on mRNA she would lose her faculty position, and face a severe pay cut.
What made the situation especially difficult was Karikó being diagnosed with cancer and, her husband being stuck in Hungary for six months due to visa issues.
She ended up continuing her research despite the demotion, and luckily in 1997 she met Drew Weissman, a respected immunologist backed by significant funding who took an interest in her endeavor.
The Road to an mRNA Vaccine
The two scientists ended up working together, seeing increasing success in their research which eventually led to them overcoming the mRNA immune response obstacle in 2004, thus enabling its use on humans.
With more and more attention from academics, Karikó and Weissman eventually licensed the vaccine technology they developed to BioNTech, the German company that would eventually partner with Pfizer in 2018 before developing a Covid-19 vaccine.
Karikó has been the Senior Vice President at BioNTech since 2013, after the University of Pennsylvania refused to reinstate her faculty position since she was apparently “not of faculty quality.”
When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.’”
The BioNTech Senior Vice President summarized her decades of research at MTA’s event, where she voiced her thanks to those who helped her in her studies and her research in Hungary. She stated that without these people, she would not have been able to create a therapeutic molecule from messenger RNA.
The Hungarian Academy of Science thanked Karikó for her presentation and for her work, commending her with a commemorative medal from the academy.
Balancing Career and Family Life
Karikó also spoke at the Association of Hungarian PhD and DLA Candidates (DOSZ) about balancing her life as a mother and her career as a biochemist.
The University of Szeged reported on Karikó’s speech, in which she described the complexities in taking care of a child while both her and her husband were employed, but being able to overcome every obstacle in their way together.
Karikó explained that the schedules of her and her husband were often so busy that they ended up communicating through their daughter.
I started my day in the laboratory around 5-6 in the morning. My daughter already knew in her second-third grade years that she needs to wake up and get dressed on her own. (…) I would ask my daughter in the afternoon: ‘what did your dad say?’ While my husband would ask her in the morning: ‘what did your mom say?’ the point is that everything can be achieved together.”
Karikó’s daughter, Zsuzsanna Francia, would grow up to win gold in women’s eight rowing at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. It was for this reason, The biochemist noted that for a while she was not known as Katalin Karikó, but as the mother of the Olympic champion.
Karikó’s decades of work in the field of mRNA technology are now helping billions of people around the world in the fight against the coronavirus. The creation of such an exceptional vaccine could not have been achieved without her tireless research.