Born on January 17, 1955, Katalin “Kati” Karikó (pronounced [ˈkɒrikoː ˌkɒtɒlin]) is a biochemist who is Hungarian-American and specializes in ribonucleic acid (RNA)-mediated mechanisms. Specifically, she uses in vitro-transcribed messenger RNA (mRNA) for protein replacement therapy. Karikó overcame significant challenges and criticism in the scientific community to establish the scientific foundation for mRNA vaccines. In2023, Karikó and American immunologist Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their respective contributions.
Over twenty years were spent by Karikó as an adjunct professor and underfunded researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Pennsylvania had demoted Karikó, slashed her salary, and labeled her as “not of faculty quality” before she was awarded the Nobel Prize; she was never given tenure. From 2006 to 2013, Karikó served as CEO of RNARx and was a co-founder. She worked for BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals from 2013 until 2022, initially as a vice president before being elevated to senior vice president in 2019. She departed BioNTech in 2022 in order to focus more on her research. She became a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary after receiving an honorary doctorate there in 2021.
As a result of Karikó’s scientific studies on RNA-mediated immune activation, he and Drew Weissman co-discovered the nucleoside alterations that reduce RNA’s immunogenicity.16 and 17 This is considered an additional development in the therapeutic application of mRNA. She and Weissman jointly own US patents related to the use of nucleoside-modified RNA that is non-immunogenic. While BioNTech and Moderna have licensed this technology to advance their protein replacement technologies, it was also utilized in the development of their COVID-19 vaccines.
The two most successful vaccines based on this technology, Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer, and the messenger RNA-based technology developed by Karikó have served as the cornerstone for the global effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Along with the Nobel Prize, Karikó and Weissman have won various other honors for their work, such as the Tang Prize Award in Biopharmaceutical Science in 2022, Time Magazine’s Hero of the Year 2021, and the Lasker–DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award.
Katalin Karikó Early life and education
Born in Szolnok, Hungary, Katalin Karikó grew up in a modest home without running water, a refrigerator, or a television in Kisújszállás, Hungary. Her mother worked as a bookkeeper, while her father was a butcher. In her elementary school years, she was a science prodigy, placing third in a biology competition held in Hungary.
Karikó graduated from the University of Szeged in 1978 with a B.Sc. in biology and in 1982 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She completed her postdoctoral studies in the Institute of Biochemistry, Biological studies Centre (BRC) of Hungary, where she collaborated with Jenő Tomasz. She claims she was pressured into becoming an intelligence asset by the Communist Hungarian secret police between 1978 and 1985 out of fear of career-ending consequences or retaliation against her father. She asserts that neither did she give them information nor did she work as an agent.
After the BRC stopped supporting her lab in 1985, Karikó looked for employment at organizations abroad. Robert J. Suhadolnik of Temple University offered Karikó a research position, so she accepted it and, along with her husband and two-year-old daughter, they left Hungary for the United States. They brought £900 with them, which they had hidden inside her daughter’s teddy bear from selling their car and purchasing British pounds on the black market.
Katalin Karikó Career
Karikó worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Philadelphia’s Temple University from 1985 to 1988. Karikó took part in a clinical trial where double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) was used to treat patients with AIDS, hematologic disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Although the antiviral and antineoplastic benefits of interferon were well-established, the molecular mechanism of interferon induction by dsRNA was unknown at the time, making this research groundbreaking.
According to Gregory Zuckerman’s 2021 book A Shot to Save the World, Karikó left Temple without telling her lab advisor Suhadolnik that she was leaving in 1988 when she accepted a post at Johns Hopkins University. Declaring that she was “illegally” in the country, Suhadolnik threatened to have her deported if she went to Johns Hopkins. He then denounced her to American immigration officials. Johns Hopkins canceled the employment offer while she successfully contested the ensuing extradition order. Karikó was unable to obtain a new post at any other institution due to Suhadolnik’s persistent negative remarks about her, until she encountered a researcher at Bethesda Naval Hospital who had a troubled past with Suhadolnik.
Later, Karikó attested that the incident had indeed occurred as Zuckerman had stated, but stressed that “more importantly I was always grateful to Suhadolnik for sending me the IAP66 form in 1985, for the opportunity he gave me to work in his lab.” She added that “a couple of years later, when I gave a lecture at Temple, I thanked him for the science I learned from him and for his generosity.” She studied with signal protein interferons at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, from 1988 to 1989.
She was employed by the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 to collaborate on messenger RNA (mRNA) research with cardiologist Elliot Barnathan. In 1990, Karikó, then an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, filed her first grant application, proposing to create mRNA-based gene therapy. Karikó’s main area of interest in research has been mRNA-based therapy ever then.
However, because so many scientists, biotechs, and pharmaceutical corporations questioned mRNA’s potential, the technology lost prominence in the 1990s. Karikó struggled to secure money, despite the backing of Elliot Barnathan (who left UPenn in 1997) and David Langer (who later employed her). At first, the university had her on track to become a full professor, but in 1995, she was demoted after receiving repeated grant rejections. She nevertheless made the decision to stay and carry out her mRNA study.
She first got to know immunology professor Drew Weissman in 1997, when he had just started at the University of Pennsylvania. They started exchanging ideas before working together. The financial support from Weissman was essential in enabling Karikó to carry out and expand her research, and Weissman’s immunology and Karikó’s biochemistry worked incredibly well together. They started advancing the technology, resolving issues one at a time and finally becoming well-known. According to Weissman, “We had to fight the entire way.” It was highlighted that Karikó’s perseverance was remarkable in contrast to the standards of academic research work environment.
Kate was really remarkable. She was quite curious all the time. She was an avid reader. Even if it was in a completely unrelated field, she would always be up to date on the newest papers or technologies. After putting two and two together, she would ask, “Well, why don’t we do this?” Alternatively, “How about we try this formulation?”
Prior to 2005, one of the main issues with the suggested therapeutic application of mRNA was that its usage in vivo produced inflammatory responses. When Karikó concentrated on the reason that transfer RNA (tRNA), when employed as a control in an experiment, did not elicit the same immune response as mRNA, a crucial realization occurred. Starting in 2005, a number of groundbreaking research showed that tRNA was noninflammatory while synthesized mRNA was extremely inflammatory. By substituting pseudouridine for uridine, Karikó and Weissman were able to ascertain how particular nucleoside changes in mRNA resulted in a diminished immune response. The journals Nature and Science rejected their major discovery—that mRNA could be chemically modified to make it non-immunogenic—but Immunity eventually published it.
The researchers’ creation of a unique pharmaceutical drug delivery strategy for mRNA, which involves packaging the mRNA in lipid nanoparticles, was another significant accomplishment. In order to safeguard the delicate molecule until it reaches the intended region of the body, the mRNA is injected inside small fat droplets, also known as lipid nanoparticles. They used animals to illustrate its efficacy.
A tiny business called RNARx was established by Karikó and Weissman, who were granted patents in 2006 and 2013 for the use of several modified nucleosides to lessen the antiviral immune response to mRNA. Not long after, Gary Dahl, the owner of a lab supply company that would later become Cellscript, purchased the intellectual property license from the University of Pennsylvania. A few weeks later, she received a call from Moderna’s venture capital firm, Flagship Pioneering, who was trying to license the patent. Karikó had to inform them that it was no longer accessible.
Biochemist Ian MacLachlan was contacted by Katalin Karikó in 2006 to collaborate on the chemically changed mRNA. At first, MacLachlan and Tekmira declined to participate in the partnership. Karikó was drawn to Ian MacLachlan because he led a group that made significant contributions to the advancement of mRNA technology. Karikó was developing a formulated lipid nanoparticle delivery system that uses a mixing procedure to encapsulate mRNA in a dense particle.
Karikó learned about Moderna’s $240 million agreement with AstraZeneca to create an mRNA for vascular endothelial growth factor early in 2013. The University of Pennsylvania would not allow Karikó to put her experience with mRNA to use, so she accepted a position as vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals (becoming a senior vice president in 2019), all the while keeping her adjunct professorship at the university.
Karikó is a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary as of October 2023.
Katalin Karikó Scientific contributions
Research by Karikó and her areas of expertise have a wide-ranging effect, potentially impacting fields like “a new class of drugs” and messenger RNA-based gene therapy, in addition to the production of pluripotent stem cells.
BioNTech and Moderna were able to produce therapeutic mRNAs that do not trigger an immune response thanks to the work of Karikó. 2020 saw the implementation of Karikó and Weissman’s technology in COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by Moderna, BioNTech, and Pfizer, among others. The mRNA vaccines showed over 90% effectiveness and were created and authorized for use at a rate never seen before. Apart from vaccinations against infectious diseases, mRNA exhibits potential uses in the management of cancer, cardiovascular, and metabolic disorders. such as ischemia
Katalin Karikó Awards and honors
For her groundbreaking and internationally significant work in biochemistry, Karikó has been recognized with more than 130 international awards and distinctions.
On October 2, 2023, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences declared that Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their advancements in mRNA technology.
Karikó’s study on messenger RNA led to her induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2023.
Katalin Karikó Personal life
Susan Francia, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing, is the child of Karikó and Béla Francia. In February 2021, their grandchild was born in the United States to their son-in-law, Ryan Amos, an architect.
Katalin Karikó Media visibility and memoir
Her career was highlighted in April 2021 by The New York Times, which helped pave the way for the development of mRNA vaccinations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Daily podcast from The New York Times featured Karikó’s career on June 10, 2021, highlighting the numerous obstacles she had to overcome before her work was acknowledged.
Two children’s books on her were published in 2023: Debbie Dadey and Juliana Oakley’s Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines and Megan Hoyt and Vivien Mildenberger’s Kati’s Tiny Messengers: Dr. Katalin Karikó and the War Against COVID-19.
Only a few days after receiving the Nobel Prize, Katalin Karikó’s autobiography was released by Crown Publishing Group on October 10. Breaking Through: My Life in Science is the title.
Does Katalin Kariko have a PhD?
At the University of Szeged in her native Hungary, Karikó earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1978 and a PhD in biochemistry in 1982.
What are the interesting facts about Katalin Kariko?
Growing up in a small Hungarian village, Karikó showed an early interest in the natural world and did exceptionally well in science classes. She took a job at the Biological Research Centre (BRC), Szeged, in 1978 after earning her doctorate from the University of Szeged.