Katalin Kariko’s work in mRNA is the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine

Karikó has spent decades of her career exploring the therapeutic possibilities of mRNA, a component of DNA that is considered one of the main building blocks of life. Through multiple setbacks, job losses, doubts and a transatlantic step, Karikó stood by her conviction: This mRNA could be used for something really groundbreaking. This work is now the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Karikó, 65, started her career in her Hungarian homeland in the 1970s when mRNA research was new and the possibilities seemed endless. But the reputation of the American Dream (and more research and funding opportunities) was rooted.

In 1985 she and her husband and baby daughter left Hungary for the United States after receiving an invitation from Temple University in Philadelphia. They sold their car, Karikó told The Guardian, and stuffed the money – the equivalent of about $ 1,200 – into their daughter’s teddy bear to keep it safe.
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“We had just moved into our new apartment, our daughter was 2 years old, everything was so good, we were happy,” Karikó told the Hungarian news website G7 about her family’s departure. “But we had to go.”

She did research at Temple and then at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. But by then the blossom of the rose in mRNA research was far from blooming, and Karikó’s idea that it could be used to fight disease was viewed as too radical and too financially risky to be funded. She applied for scholarship after scholarship but received repeated rejections and was downgraded from her position at UPenn in 1995. She was also diagnosed with cancer around the same time.

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

From doubt to breakthrough

But she stuck with it.

Finally, Karikó and her former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Drew Weissman, came up with a method of using synthetic mRNA to fight disease that changes the way the body makes virus-fighting material, she explained on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time “.

That discovery is now the basis of the Covid-19 vaccine, and some have said that both Weissman and Karikó, now Senior Vice President of Germany-based BioNTech, deserve a Nobel Prize.

“If someone asks me who to vote one day, I would put them in the spotlight,” Derek Rossi, one of the founders of pharmaceutical giant Moderna, told Stat. “This fundamental discovery will flow into medicines that will help the world.”

While recognition has to be nice after all this time, Karikó says that scientific fame isn’t what she’s thinking about right now.

“Really, we’re going to celebrate when this human suffering is over, when the hardship and all this terrible time ends, and hopefully in the summer when we forget about viruses and vaccines. And then I’ll really celebrate,” she told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

Karikó said she planned to get the vaccine with Weissman soon, and she said she was “very, very confident” that it will work. After all, their discoveries contributed to this.

Meanwhile, Karikó said she had a small treat to celebrate the vaccine news: a bag of goobers, her favorite candy.