The development of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the first approved jab in the West, is the crowning achievement of decades of work for Hungarian biochemist Katalin Kariko, who fled to the US from communist rule in the 1980s.
When trials found the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to be safe and 95 percent effective in November, it was the crowning achievement of Katalin Kariko’s 40 years of research on the genetic code RNA (ribonucleic acid). Her first reaction was a sense of “redemption,” Kariko told The Daily Telegraph.
“I was grabbing the air, I got so excited I was afraid that I might die or something,” she said from her home in Philadelphia. “When I am knocked down I know how to pick myself up, but I always enjoyed working… I imagined all of the diseases I could treat.”
Born in January 1955 in a Christian family in the town of Szolnok in central Hungary – a year before the doomed heroism of the uprising against the Soviet-backed communist regime – Kariko grew up in nearby Kisujszellas on the Great Hungarian Plain, where her father was a butcher. Fascinated by science from a young age, Kariko began her career at the age of 23 at the University of Szeged’s Biological Research Centre, where she obtained her PhD.
It was there that she first developed her interest in RNA. But communist Hungary’s laboratories lacked resources, and in 1985 the university sacked her. Consequently, Kariko looked for work abroad, getting a job at Temple University in Philadelphia the same year. Hungarians were forbidden from taking money out of the country, so she sold the family car and hid the proceeds in her 2-year-old daughter’s teddy bear. “It was a one-way ticket,” she told Business Insider. “We didn’t know anybody.”
‘Then, I really will be celebrating’
Not everything went as planned after Kariko’s escape from communism. At the end of the 1980s, the scientific community was focused on DNA, which was seen as the key to understanding how to develop treatments for diseases such as cancer. But Kariko’s main interest was RNA, the genetic code that gives cells instructions on how to make proteins.
At the time, research into RNA attracted criticism because the body’s immune system sees it as an intruder, meaning that it often provokes strong inflammatory reactions. In 1995, Kariko was about to be made a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but instead she was consigned to the rank of researcher.
“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” Kariko told medical publication Stat. She went through a cancer scare at the time, while her husband was stuck in Hungary trying to sort out visa issues. “I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments,” she continued. Kariko was also on the receiving end of sexism, with colleagues asking her the name of her supervisor when she was running her own lab.
Kariko persisted in the face of these difficulties. “From outside, it seemed crazy, struggling, but I was happy in the lab,” she told Business Insider. “My husband always, even today, says, ‘This is entertainment for you.’ I don’t say that I go to work. It is like play.”
Thanks to Kariko’s position at the University of Pennsylvania, she was able to send her daughter Susan Francia there for a quarter of the tuition costs. Francia won gold on the US rowing team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
It was a serendipitous meeting in front of a photocopier in 1997 that turbocharged Kariko’s career. She met immunologist Drew Weissman, who was working on an HIV vaccine. They decided to collaborate to develop a way of allowing synthetic RNA to go unrecognised by the body’s immune system – an endeavour that succeeded to widespread acclaim in 2005. The duo continued their research and succeeded in placing RNA in lipid nanoparticles, a coating that prevents them from degrading too quickly and facilitates their entry into cells.
The researchers behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs used these techniques to develop their vaccines. Both of them use the same strategy of introducing genetic instructions into the body to trigger the production of a protein identical to that of the coronavirus, thereby eliciting the desired immune response.
Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman are now favourites to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Kariko has a senior post at German research firm BioNTech, after years on the fringes of her profession.
Despite this triumph after decades of struggle, Kariko said it’s not yet time to crack open the champagne bottles. She is waiting for mass vaccinations to eradicate the virus’s threat. “Then, I will really be celebrating,” she told CNN.
This article was translated from the original in French.