The champion of mRNA  —  meet the woman who figured it out!

The champion of mRNA — meet the woman who figured it out!

Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology is the bedrock of the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. It’s the genetic script that carries instructions to the protein-making machinery of cells.

Who is Katalin Kariko

For its newly prominent role in protecting the world from the coronavirus pandemic, we can thank Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian-born scientist, and her close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman.

Dr. Kariko, 66, has focused on mRNA for her entire career. She was convinced it could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.

From wild and fanciful ideas to stunning results

For decades, she clung to the fringes of academia in the United States, struggling to find a permanent position and never making more than $60,000 a year. Her unorthodox ideas seemed wild and fanciful to her peers, and she struggled to get grants.

After her research stalled — she could make mRNA work in a petri dish, but not in living mice — Dr. Kariko found a clue in an experiment’s control group. A single molecule called pseudouridine helped evade the immune response and deliver the protein-instruction payload.

Eventually, companies like Moderna and BioNTech took notice of Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman’s research. And when Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the coronavirus in January 2020, they were ready. BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours; Moderna took two days.

Humbly saving the world

Last November, when the first stunning results from the mRNA coronavirus vaccines came in, Dr. Kariko turned to her husband. “Oh, it works,” she said. “I thought so.”

 

Picture: Katalin Kariko in February at her home in Jenkintown, Pa. Hannah Yoon

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