Katalin Karikó has worked with RNA for most of her life. She calls it her favourite molecule.
The world is lucky that her fascination with RNA led to its use in medicine, because there were many skeptics in the early days. Her pioneering work in this area was ultimately instrumental to the creation of the first COVID-19 vaccines. For this work, she has received a 2022 Canada Gairdner International Award.
“In Hungary, I started to synthesize short RNA, which had antiviral effect,” says Karikó, senior vice president at BioNTech and an adjunct professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania.
“And then from the 1990s I started to work with messenger RNA, and used the messenger RNA as therapeutic. So messenger RNA coding for therapeutic protein was my major work.”
mRNA encodes the instructions to make proteins — the molecular machinery of life. There was potential to use it to produce a desired protein for a clinical benefit.
It wasn’t until she met collaborator Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania that she realized that the RNA she was making was inflammatory, making it hard to get it inside cells to deliver those instructions before it degraded.
“Together we found that if we change one component during the synthesis of the RNA, we can make the RNA non-inflammatory,” says Karikò.
“So we were ready for prime time to test this for therapeutic purposes.”
Karikó’s persistence made it possible to imagine mRNA as the active component of a vaccine. Researchers quickly sequenced the genome of the virus that causes COVID-19. With this information in hand, it was possible to quickly synthesize a custom mRNA sequence for the virus’s characteristic Spike protein and start testing it right away.
“The Gairdner Award of course is a very prestigious award and I am very honoured,” says Karikó.
“All of the scientists who get this award in prior years is making me really humbled that I too belong to this group, and so I am very thrilled and I am very thankful.”
In closing, Karikó shares a story about parallels she sees between science and sport.
“My daughter is a rower; she’s a two times Olympic champion, five times world champion,” adds Karikó.
“I told her many times that the rowing is so similar to science I am doing, because the rowers cannot see the finish line. They are going rowing backwards and they’re just, you know, pulling their best. And I told her that she’s luckier because at least she knows that she’s going to the right direction.
“I am a scientist, I pull so hard and I don’t even know that this is the right direction and not knowing where is the finish line. But for me the recognition as I got in these days, I was not dreaming about and I was not expecting that. I was, honestly I was very happy.”