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Smart Thinker: how Dr Katalin Karikó emerged as a COVID-19 vaccine champion

Photo credit: Biontech SE 2021

Smart Thinker: how Dr Katalin Karikó emerged as a COVID-19 vaccine champion

Dr Katalin Karikó's work is widely regarded as the foundation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Yet her incredible 'overnight discovery' really began decades ago.

Smart Thinker: how Dr Katalin Karikó emerged as a COVID-19 vaccine champion

There are heroes and there are those who change the world. Hungarian-born biochemist Dr Katalin Karikó, 66, falls into both categories.

Nicknamed ‘the mother of Pfizer,’ she has emerged as one of the COVID-19 vaccine champions, with her work widely regarded as the foundation for the vaccines made by both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

But make no mistake, Dr Karikó’s ‘overnight’ discovery began decades ago. “Most of the work I did which contributed to the vaccine I did 30 years ago, developing the modification so that the vaccine wouldn’t be inflammatory and would get a much better immune response,” she says, speaking via Zoom from her daughter’s house in San Diego.

“The last eight years at BioNTech we were screening different components with my team, and in 2014, we identified what became this vaccine. We made modifications of the messenger RNA to optimise it, so more protein can be made from it,” she explains.

These mRNA, messenger molecules which carry instructions from DNA which control the synthesis of proteins, have been in every living cell for billions of years, and are the key element in some COVID-19 vaccines.

“Actually, I was working in neurosurgery, making an mRNA for treating stroke patients, when my colleague, Professor Drew Weissman [who formerly worked in Dr Anthony Fauci’s laboratory], showed that the mRNA I was making was inflammatory, so I started to think about how could I make it non-inflammatory.”

She continues to discuss the journey that led to the genesis of her idea. “When the pandemic happened, from that very first infection, my CEO, Uğur Şahin, already thought it would become a pandemic. He looked at the map and recognised that from Wuhan there are planes, there are trains, and if there was one case there, it will be soon everywhere.

“So with the design and the sequences [already established], he could develop it overnight and put it into production simply because there were decades of work already put in it.”

The daughter of a butcher, Dr Karikó was born in the Hungarian town of Kisújszállás. She earned her PhD at the University of Szeged and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at its Biological Research Centre.

When the university’s research programme ran out of funds, she packed up her family, her husband, Bélla Francia, and their two-year-old daughter, Susan, and moved to the United States for a job as a postdoctoral student at Temple University. “I didn’t defect,” she insists. “I left Hungary officially. I love Hungary and I’d live there if opportunities were different.”

Even so, the conditions under which Dr Karikó was able to enter the US were less than favourable. At the time, in 1985, Hungarians were not permitted to leave the country with more than $100, and she worried about how her family would get by on the tiny stipend until she had an income.

“I smuggled in 900 pounds [US$1250] so we could survive,” she says, matter-of- factly. Her husband sewed the money into Susan’s teddy bear, and it went undetected. More challenges lay ahead for the good doctor and her family before they could achieve the elusive ‘American Dream’ – including the threat of deportation – though happily for the human race, she managed to dodge that predicament.

Eventually, she found a job at the University of Pennsylvania. “Everything was nice and dandy again and I worked very hard and long hours,” she says. Unsurprisingly, this took a toll on her family life. “My daughter could see that I worked hard and I was not there in the mornings to assist her, because by the time she was up I was already at work.”

Yet Susan turned out to be a success story in her own right, in a field as demanding but far different from her mother’s. “My daughter became a two-time Olympic gold medal winner in rowing. She went to the China and London Olympics,” she smiles proudly.

Dr Karikó is also a newly minted grandmother, courtesy of Susan. “Yes, I’m sitting here with my newborn grandson, only six days old.”

This year, Dr Karikó and Professor Weissman received the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research for their work on mRNA vaccines against Sars-cov-2. As for the future of COVID-19 and variants still to come, it raises the question, will we be living with the coronavirus in some form or another for the rest of our lives?

“Well, I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me to tell you what the future is. But I can tell you that if it’s something that’s very deadly, usually it dies out quickly because people cannot carry it. But if you have a disease where people are not sick [contract the virus but are asymptomatic] yet can walk around infecting those who are vulnerable, such a disease will be around for a long time.”

So, what is one to do? From listening to Dr Karikó, it seems that commonsense is the best defence.

“This is what I’ve been telling people: it’s important to try to live a stress-free life and to eat healthier, eat less, exercise, and don’t smoke. We can’t predict why somebody can get seriously ill [from COVID-19] and others don’t,” she shrugs. “You need to look at genetics. There are three genes identified, as well as other elements that can predict that.”

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