Who is Dr. Katalin Karikó and Why She Also Deserves Her Flowers for the Moderna and Pfizer Vaccines

Dr. Katalin Kati Kariko

Throughout history the achievements of women in STEM often go overlooked or sometimes even erased. Women in STEM constantly seem to have to work twice, thrice even four times as hard as their male counterparts, just to receive less than half of the reward and recognition for their hard work.

From not being able to secure funding, to not being able to advance in academia, Dr. Katalin Karikó overcame many challenges in order to continue her research. She knew her idea was good and would revolutionize medical treatment, so she persevered despite the many challenges and obstacles she faced.

She devoted her life to studying mRNA based therapy and now over 15 years later she is finally getting a fraction of the recognition she deserves for her work. Dr Katalin Karikó alongside her collaborator Dr. Drew Weissman laid the foundation for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and all future vaccines that use mRNA technology.

So why exactly is mRNA such a big deal, who is Dr. Katalin (Kati) Karikó, and why does she deserve her flowers for her contribution to the fight against COVID-19? Keep reading to find out!

First we must start with a quick science lesson

What is mRNA, its significance and why we should care?

In order to understand mRNA we must first start with DNA. Most of us are probably familiar with DNA and have probably heard phrases like “it’s in my DNA.” Well, DNA is your genetic makeup, essentially DNA is what makes you look like you. It is your DNA that makes you have your eye color, hair color etc. Your body is made up of many cells and inside each cell is a nucleus where DNA is located. In your DNA are genes which are essentially the details in your DNA that make you you.

labelled animal cell

Now the question becomes, how does the information contained in your genes located in your DNA, get from the cell nucleus to the cell cytoplasm to make proteins. Proteins are molecules that carry out the processes that enable your body to function. For example, the protein collagen is what gives your skin its elasticity, kinesin is a protein that helps cells transport other molecules etc. mRNA(messenger RNA) then comes into the picture because it is involved in the process in which the information contained in DNA is used to make proteins. DNA is transcribed into messages that are basically the how-to guides for making proteins, the messages(mRNA) are then used to make the proteins. In other words, information is stored in DNA in the form of a code, the code is then transcribed into messages that tell proteins what to do.

The significance of this is that since mRNA can tell proteins what to do and proteins are the molecules that carry out the processes in our body, wouldn't it be cool if we could tell mRNA which proteins to produce in order to protect a cell against viruses? The question of whether mRNA could teach the body how to make its own medicine is a question Kati Karikó set out to answer.

DNA mRNA protein diagram

Whew! I know you didn't expect to be taken to science class….but now that our mini crash course in the DNA→ mRNA→ protein pathway is out the way, now enter Dr. Katalin (Kati) Karikó into our story

Dr. Katalin Karikó, also known as Kati, is an immigrant from Hungary who obtained her PhD from University of Szeged and completed postdoctoral work in the United States at Temple University and Uniformed Services University of the Health Science. Just about 20 years after it was discovered that mRNA is how genes get expressed in the body, Dr. Karikó decided to make it her mission to advance the research field of mRNA.

In an interview with Wired, Dr Karikó said, “I always thought that the majority of patients don’t actually need new genes, they need something temporary like a drug, to cure their aches and pains, so mRNA was always more interesting to me.”

mRNA Seems to be a Flop

By the early 1990’s, the great amount of hope the scientific community had for the potential of using mRNA to tell the body to essentially heal itself was beginning to die down. Many scientists had tried to inject mRNA into the bodies of animals however the animals showed such a great adverse reaction, that they died. Due to the repeated failures of scientists across the globe, scientists had begun to turn away from mRNA research and less money was being funneled to scientists who were doing mRNA research. Around that time, Dr Karikó was working at the University of Pennsylvania and although she was a brilliant scientist, because many of her grant applications were being rejected and her mRNA work was being viewed as a waste of time. UPenn had also demoted her and also reduced her salary.

In an interview with Stat News, Dr. Karikó said, “I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else, “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”

Katalin Kati Kariko with Drew Weissman

Although she was demoted and received a salary cut, she decided to preserve and continue to pursue her mRNA research, which led her to meet Dr. Drew Weissman, an immunologist who had just come on board at UPenn. After a brief conversation about each other's research, Karikó and Weismann decided to partner up, with Weismann having the funding for her experiments.

“My salary was lower than the technician who worked next to me, but Drew was supportive and that’s what I concentrated on, not the roadblocks I’d had to face.” - Dr. Karikó for Wired

The Power of Perseverance

After many rejections by various scientific journals, in 2005, Karikó and Weissman finally published. Their article titled, “Suppression of RNA Recognition by Toll-like Receptors: The Impact of Nucleoside Modification and the Evolutionary Origin of RNA”, gave insight as to why scientists were not able to make mRNA that told cells which proteins to produce in live mice without serious adverse reactions(it was successful in petri dishes). They then went on to show that they could use mRNA to make monkeys produce a protein of their choice, and eventually started to look at how they could use this same reasoning to use one’s own body to make a protein drug of choice.

“We realized at that moment that this would be very important, and it could be used in vaccines and therapies. So we published a paper, filed a patent, established a company, and then found there was no interest. Nobody invited us anywhere to talk about it, nothing.” - Karikó for Wired

Two biotech companies, Moderna and Pfizer eventually took notice of their work. In 2013, Dr. Kariko left UPenn to become the Senior Vice President at BioNTech, after UPenn had said she was not ‘faculty quality’.

“They told me that they’d had a meeting and concluded that I was not of faculty quality,” she said. ”When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.” - Karikó for Wired

Katalin Kati Kariko

A Success Story

Fast Forward 7 years later to the year 2020 when the world was crippled by Coronavirus. It is Dr. Kariko’s mRNA research that is helping to put an end to the global pandemic. Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer, which are two of the major companies producing Coronavirus vaccines, would not have been able to do so as quickly as they did, if not for Dr. Kariko’s courage to trust her gut and explore mRNA based therapy, even when everyone counted her out for doing so. Because of her courage and tenacity, billions of people will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccines that use mRNA technology.

“I always wanted to help people, to try and get something into the clinic,” she said. “That was the motivation for me, and I was always optimistic. But to help that many people, I never imagined that. It makes me very happy to know that I’ve played a part in this success story.” - Dr. Karikó