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This scientist’s decades of mRNA research led to COVID vaccines

This scientist's decades of mRNA research led to COVID vaccines

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Half an hour outside Philadelphia, in a modest suburban home, lives a quirky, cheerful 65-year-old scientist who’s a big part of the reason people might be able to throw away their masks next year.

The pioneering Dr. Katalin Kariko — who fled Communist-run Hungary at 30 for the US in 1985 with $1,200 hidden inside her 2-year-old daughter’s teddy bear — isn’t as powerful or rich as Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel or BioNTech’s Ugur Sahin. Nor has she ever been celebrated.

Kariko’s obsessive 40 years of research into synthetic messenger RNA was long thought to be a boring dead-end. She said she was chronically overlooked, scorned, fired, demoted, repeatedly refused government and corporate grants, and threatened with deportation — among other indignities.

Now, while others are earning billions, if you ask her what her cut is, she rolls her eyes with a rueful laugh and says, “maybe $3 million.”

All along, though, Kariko held fast to her belief in mRNA, which has turned out to be key to building the complicated technology behind the new vaccines developed by Moderna and Germany’s BioNTech (which has teamed with Pfizer.)

Scientists say they couldn’t have won the global vaccine race without her.

“Yes, I was humiliated quite a bit but now you can see that I was right all along,” Kariko told The Post while smiling and joking in her living room. “It’s all OK. I just love my work and I continue to believe in all its possibilities. I’m just so happy I lived long enough to see my work bear fruit.”

Dr. Katalin Kariko
Dr. Katalin Kariko
Matthew McDermott

Messenger ribonucleic acid, first discovered in 1961 at Caltech, has been called the “software of life.” Unlike other vaccines, which involve injecting dead viral remnants into the body, a vaccine using mRNA sends a set of instructions into cells that teaches – and triggers – them to fight off disease. It’s described as a clean vaccine — and the implications for preventing the spread of Covid and other diseases from cancer and strokes to malaria and multiple sclerosis is apparently off the charts.

Legions of scientists, including many mRNA specialists, have helped develop the Moderna and BioNTech vaccines. But it was Kariko — with the help of University of Pennsylvania immunologist Drew Weissman — who discovered a method in 2005 to prevent the inflammatory response in the body to synthetic mRNA.

That simple modification paved the way for both the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

“I think she should get the Nobel Prize in chemistry,” Derrick Rossi, one of the country’s leading molecular biologists, told The Post. Rossi, a former Harvard professor, found Kariko’s overlooked but watershed research after it was published in 2005, recognized its potential and built on it when he founded Moderna in 2010. (He left the company in 2014.) “She’s the real deal.”

Dr. Katalin Kariko in her home office in Rydal, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Katalin Kariko in her home office in Rydal, Pennsylvania.
Matthew McDermott

.But until she was vindicated this month with the news that showed both Moderna and BioNTech’s vaccines are up to 95% successful in late-stage COVID-19 trials, Kariko’s career had been a long, thankless slog.

She has to be pushed to provide details but other scientists interviewed by the Post backed up her claims that she had a very rocky time in academia.

“The [former] chairman of UPenn treated me horribly and pushed me out of my lab at one point,” Kariko said. “That was where I made some of my main discoveries but he didn’t understand. He told me I could go have a small office near the animal house for my lab.”

Kariko said she asked the new chairman of Penn to reinstate her to her former position after being demoted only to be told she was not “faculty material.” 

UPenn did not respond to the Post about Kariko’s claims of mistreatment.

“She’s not making any of that up,” Rossi told the Post. “She went through some exceptionally hard times in her career. But at the same time, Kate is not the best promoter and marketer of her own work. She tried to start her own company but it failed, because she didn’t go get the pros to help her raise money. She’s a scientist and not all of them understand the business end well.”

Oddly, Kariko doesn’t seem bitter — even though her slice of the mega-lucrative vaccine pie so far has been so small. In contrast, Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel and Moderna investors like MIT professor Bob Langer and Harvard professor Tim Springer as well as BioNTech’s Turkish owner Ugur Sahin became billionaires in the last month when their company stock prices skyrocketed.

Dr. Katalin Kariko
Dr. Katalin Kariko
Matthew McDermott

“Kate Kariko is a superstar,” Dr. David Langer, the chairman of neurosurgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, wrote on Twitter last week. “She went through such hardship and overcame so much. I saw it and witnessed her supreme work ethic and focus and always doing what was right against all odds. She deserves a tremendous amount of gratitude from us all.”

Kariko was asked to join BioNTech, a German company, as a senior vice president but pointed out wryly to The Post that her name is not even on the BioNTech website. She said she may however, earn another $5 to $10 million sometime in the future as a result of her association with BioNTech.

Kariko spoke candidly with frequent flashes of humor during a two-hour socially distanced interview at the home she shares with her Hungarian engineer husband, Bela Francia, complete with a rowing machine in the living room and giant plants taken in from the deck for winter and scattered throughout the house.

Though Kariko had a cancer scare years ago, she greeted a Post reporter and photographer while wearing a mask but removed it later and kept it off during the interview. She said she plans to take the new vaccine and added, “Nobody should be afraid of it.”

The workaholic Kariko, who rises at 5 a.m. every day and still has a lab in her basement, prefers to hop on the rowing machine in her living room and go off on rapid-fire, impassioned tangents in her still heavily-accented English about nucleosides, antigens, short and long RNA strands, proteins, cells and spikes.

She and her husband, who both tinker in their respective workspaces in the basement, are most proud of their 6’2″ daughter, Susan Francia, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing. Francia, who began rowing as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania and is now a university coach, gets her athleticism from her parents. Both Katalin and Bela were marathon runners.

Dr. Katalin Kariko with her daughter Olympian Susan Francia and husband.
Dr. Katalin Kariko with her daughter Olympian Susan Francia and husband.
Matthew McDermott

Kariko, 65, grew up in the tiny town of Kisújszállás, 93 miles outside Budapest, in a one-room house with a sawdust stove, no running water and no refrigerator. She got her first taste of science by carefully examining bloody pig carcasses her butcher father slaughtered.

She said she always felt she was lagging behind the other students when she first began university studies but ultimately pulled ahead, winning key scholarships for advanced study in biochemistry in Hungary. She began focusing on mRNA in Hungary in 1978.

When she was offered a position in 1985 at Temple University in Philadelphia after being fired from Szeged Biological Research Center where she had been studying mRNA, she and her husband, an engineer, sold their car on the black market for $1,200 and sewed the money in Susan’s teddy bear. It was illegal to take cash out of the country.

Kariko joined the University of Pennsylvania in 1990 as a professor and began immediately applying for grants to help her study of mRNA but was repeatedly turned down. Her luck changed in 1998 when she met and began working with immunologist Drew Weissman at UP

Dr. Katalin Kariko working in here home office.
Dr. Katalin Kariko working in here home office.
Matthew McDermott

Kariko was offered positions at both Moderna and BioNTech but chose BioNTech in 2014 because she preferred Sahin and his wife to Moderna’s controversial CEO Bancel.

Kariko said Bancel’s people told her that if she did sign on with Moderna, she could also be fired at a moment’s notice — and would not be able to work at a competing company for two years.

“Can you imagine,” she said, laughing again. “It’s my discovery that helped his company be what it is, but that was the deal he offered me. No thanks.”

As for what she may do with her $3 million windfall and more possibly in the offing, Kariko shakes her head.

“I like what I have and where I live and what I do. I’m busy every day. Nothing will change.”

Moderna did not return calls from The Post.

About the author

Devon Bell

Devon is a fitness enthusiast who loves playing Golf in his free time. He keeps in touch with the Golf events happening all around the world and jots down fine news pieces for the website.

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