The Mother of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Dr. Katalin Karikó receiving the vaccine, with Dr. Weissman waiting for his; Susan Francia with her parents

The Mother of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Olga Vállay Szokolay

Katalin was born in January 1955 at Szolnok, Hungary.  She grew up in the nearby town, Kisújszállás, where her father was a butcher.  Ever since childhood she had been interested in science.  Thus, upon graduating from high school, she enrolled in the famous University of Szeged, alma mater also of Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi.  It was there that she first developed her interest in RNA (ribonucleic acid).  She began her career at age 23 at the University’s Biological Research Center, where she obtained her PhD.  But the laboratories in Communist Hungary lacked resources and in 1985 she was let go.

That was the push Katalin needed to look for work abroad.  Although they were happy, just having moved to a new apartment with her husband and two-year old daughter, upon receiving an invitation to a post-doctoral position from Temple University in Philadelphia, they decided to leave the country.  They sold their car and, since there was a ban on taking money out of the country, she sewed the proceeds (about $1,200) into her daughter’s teddy bear.  Then they purchased one-way airline tickets and left Hungary.

She continued her research at Temple, and then later at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine.  But, similarly to the fashion world, trends of science come and go.  At the end of the 1980s, science’s focus was on DNA, the carrier of genetic information, which was then seen as the key to developing treatments for diseases such as cancer.  By the 1990s, Karikó’s idea was that mRNA   (“messenger RNA”) – a molecule that kickstarts the production of proteins, could be created synthetically, injected into subjects, and would direct the body to create antibodies to disease.  The trick would be to slip the foreign mRNA past the body’s natural defenses and allow it to fight disease.  But it was deemed too radical, too financially risky to fund.  All her applications for grants were rejected and in 1995, when she was about to be promoted to full professor, she was demoted to the rank of researcher at UPenn.

Around the same time, she was diagnosed with cancer.  In an interview she recalled those days: “…at that point, people just say goodbye and leave…I thought of going somewhere else or doing something else.  I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough.”

She was also often on the receiving end of sexism, with colleagues verifying legitimacy of her work by asking her the name of her supervisor when she was running her own lab.  Yet, that was where she was happy and that made her persist in face of difficulties.

Not unlike water fountains, photocopiers are great meeting places.  Katalin had a serendipitous meeting in front of one in 1997 that turbocharged her career.  She met immunologist Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, who at that time was working on an HIV vaccine.  They decided to collaborate to “develop a way of allowing synthetic RNA to go unrecognized by the body’s immune system.”  Together they 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.”

It is impossible to deal with the esoteric nature and vocabulary of this duo’s scientific focus and subsequent failures and successes without possessing the necessary background and information in molecular biology.  I shall attempt to translate it into more comprehensible concepts for the reader who may be lacking specific pertinent education.  Kindly bear with me.

Beginning in 2005, in a series of articles, Karikó and Weissman described how specific modifications in mRNA led to a reduced immune response. They founded a small company and in subsequent years received patents “for the use of several modified nucleosides to reduce the antiviral immune response to mRNA”.  After a multitude of patent dealings involving Moderna and Astra-Zeneca, in 2013 Karikó realized she would not get a chance to apply her experience with mRNA at UPenn, so she gave up her position and took a role as senior vice president at the German firm BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals.

Dr. Katalin Karikó's research and specializations include mRNA-based gene therapy, RNA-induced immune reactions, molecular bases of ischemic tolerance, and treatment of brain ischemia.  Her work contributed to BioNTech’s effort to create immune cells that produce vaccine antigens.  It also revealed that the antiviral response from mRNA gave their cancer vaccines extra boost in defense against tumors.  This technology was used within a vaccine for COVID-19 that was produced jointly by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Unlike more traditional shots, mRNA vaccines stimulate the production of killer T cells, which stop the coronavirus from replicating.  The vaccines are also relatively easy and quick to produce, since they are made in test tubes or tanks rather than cultivated in cells.  They do not contain live virus, so there is no risk of COVID-19 infection after taking the vaccination.

On December 18th, 2020 both Karikó and Weissman personally received their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine together, more than 20 years after they began their basic science collaboration.

During the ups and downs of research, Katalin’s workdays usually started at 6 a.m., and she worked some weekends and holidays.  Occasionally she even slept at the office.  But, as her husband said it, for her it was a form of “entertainment”.  It was not work, it was play.  She is now hopeful that there is so much interest and excitement for this research, that it will be possible to develop and test this mRNA vaccine technology for prevention and treatment of other diseases too.  That could, and probably will lead to new strategies targeting other infectious diseases as well as new therapeutics and products for protein replacement, immunotherapy and personalized cancer vaccines.

As fringe benefits – and consolation – while Katalin was still working at the Ivy-league UPenn, her talented daughter Susan Francia was able to enroll there for a fraction of the tuition costs. Susan received both her bachelor’s and master’s degree there.  She was also a strong rower – first at the collegiate level at UPenn, and then she won gold medals on the US rowing team in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.  Who knew there was a Hungarian presence in that team at those events?  A winner DNA!

The Karikó-Weissman duo’s name is being mentioned nowadays as potential candidates for a joint Nobel Prize.  We wish them all the best, whether they win or not.  For the time being Katalin, the Mother of the COVID-19 Vaccine, did not pop the bubbly just yet.  She only had a little private celebration with a bagful of her favorite candy: chocolate covered peanuts.

Go for it, Kati!  Congratulations from the Hungarian community in the U.S.!

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.