The Resilient Journey of Katalin Karikó:
The 2023 Nobel Laureate Who Defied All Odds
Written by: Anastasia L. Student at Albert Campbell C.I.
Katalin Karikó, the Hungarian-born biochemist whose research in mRNA technology served as a basis for COVID-19 vaccinations. (Image credit: © Katalin Karikó/Penn Medicine)
The Women in STEM Club (WISC) at ACCI is a welcoming and exciting place where women interested in STEM can build a sense of community with bright, like-minded peers. Aside from the games we play, the food we eat, and the scavenger hunts we go on, the Women in STEM Club also highlights a particular inspiring woman each month who has contributed greatly to her STEM field of study. This month, a spotlight has been placed on Katalin Karikó, the recent co-winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
Katalin Karikó is a biochemist from Hungary born on January 17, 1955 in Szolnok, Hungary, whose early life was marked by a passion for science, particularly biochemistry and genetics. She is world-renowned for her groundbreaking work in the field of messenger RNA (mRNA) research, which involves technology that teaches your cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response that protects against various viruses. This research laid the foundation for the development of mRNA-based COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
In recognition of her immense contributions to the field, Karikó was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2023 alongside Drew Weissman, cementing her status as a scientific pioneer. However, her path to this prestigious award was not without obstacles, as she faced numerous setbacks and doubts in her professional and academic career.
Karikó worked as a researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania for 24 years, where she began her research career on mRNA and its application in vaccine development. In an mRNA vaccine, scientists first take part of the virus’s genetic code and turn it into a vaccine that is safely injected into the patient. The vaccine enters the cells and indicates to them to produce the virus spike protein. The human body’s immune system reacts to these proteins, produces antibodies, and activates T-cells to destroy the cells with the spike protein. Thus, if the patient later catches the virus, the antibodies and T-cells are again triggered to fight the intruder virus.
Illustration by Bruno Bourgeois, for Health Feedback.
Within human cells, messenger RNA (mRNA), which serves as a template for the synthesis of proteins, receives the genetic information contained in DNA. A highly effective technique was introduced in the 1980s which could generate mRNA without the need for cell culture. This achievement allowed for the advancement of mRNA applications across multiple fields, and though there would be obstacles, the idea of employing mRNA technologies for vaccination and medicinal applications gained awareness and traction. However, scientists also thought that in vitro transcribed mRNA was unstable and difficult to distribute, necessitating the creation of complex carrier lipid systems to encapsulate the mRNA. Additionally, mRNA generated in vitro induced inflammatory responses, which is why there was initially little enthusiasm for developing mRNA technology for use in medicine.
As such, this is why Karikó initially struggled to get funding and awareness for her work, despite the promise and potential of her mRNA research. She was demoted from her faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania four times, reflecting the difficulties she encountered in convincing her colleagues and superiors about the potential of her research. This led her to leave UPenn in 2013 and become the vice president and later senior vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals.
This gave Karikó the freedom to develop her mRNA research with American immunologist Drew Weissman. They eventually discovered that, when compared to unmodified mRNA, the administration of mRNA produced with base changes significantly boosted protein production. The result was a decrease in the activity of an enzyme that controls the synthesis of proteins. By discovering that base changes both enhanced protein synthesis and decreased inflammatory reactions, Karikó and Weissman had removed significant barriers to the clinical use of mRNA—therefore enabling mRNA technology to be used in vaccine development.
As quoted by Vox, “Arguably few Nobelists had a hand in saving more lives than Karikó and Weissman. One study estimates that in the US alone, the vaccines prevented over 3 million deaths and 18 million hospitalizations and saved more than $1 trillion dollars. Worldwide, of course, the effect was even larger.”
Bourgeois, B. (2021). How mRNA vaccines work. Health Feedback [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://healthfeedback.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Covid-19-RNA-vaccine-1536×956.png.
Gristwood, A. (2023, October 19). An interview with mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó. EMBO Reports. https://www.embopress.org/doi/full/10.15252/embr.202358261
Katalin Karikó in the lab. (n.d.-a). Penn Medicine [Photograph]. Google. Retrieved from https://media.bizj.us/view/img/12592880/karikolab1-copy-2022*900xx1280-721-0-83.jpg
Katalin Kariko, Phd profile. Penn Medicine. (n.d.). https://www.pennmedicine.org/providers/profile/katalin-kariko
Kolata, G. (2021, April 8). Long overlooked, Kati Kariko helped shield the world from the coronavirus. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/health/coronavirus-mrna-kariko.html
Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. (2023, October 2). The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2023 – Press Release. NobelPrize.org. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2023/press-release/
Piper, K. (2023, October 5). The lifesaving, Nobel Prize-winning discovery that almost didn’t happen. Vox. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2023/10/5/23903292/katalin-kariko-drew-weissman-nobel-prize-medicine-mrna-vaccines-covid-coronavirus
Shrikant, A. (2023, October 6). Nobel Prize winner Katalin Karikó was ‘demoted 4 times’ at her old job. How she persisted: ‘You have to focus on what’s next.’ CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/10/06/nobel-prize-winner-katalin-karik-on-being-demoted-perseverance-.html