Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. A shared Nobel-prize for mRNA?

I’m not a chemist but I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Nobel-prize in Chemistry would go to Hungarian-born Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman of the United States.  I had a chance to talk to several scientists who know a lot more about this subject than I do and they were all excited.

Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó (University of Pennsylvania photo)

Hungarians are somewhat fixated on the Nobel-prize.  The government has even printed glossy promotional materials bragging about the high number of Nobel-prize winners.  Yet it is rarely mentioned that many of them had little to do with Hungary and didn’t even speak the language.  A Hungarian professor, Mr. István Hargittai wrote a fascinating book entitled, The Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes, Science, and Scientists about the prize selection process and “the ingredients for scientific discovery and for getting recognition.”  It is a highly recommended “handbook” on how to get a Nobel-prize. (more here)

I suspect that Katalin Karikó has what it takes. She has endured a series of research setbacks, health issues and rejection in her career but her lifelong insistence that mRNA technology can work finally prevailed.  Karikó’s alma mater is the University of Szeged where the fabulous and eccentric Albert Szent-Györgyi received his Nobel-prize in 1937 for isolating Vitamin C.

Katalin Karikó and her daughter, US rowing legend, double Olympic gold medal winner Susan Francia

One of the most promising coronavirus vaccines is now ready for distribution.  It has been developed by US drug-giant Pfizer and the German biotech firm, BioNTech. The vaccine has received authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use and 2.9 million doses are already available in the US.

The vaccine is based on a technology called mRNA or messengerRNA.  RNA stands for RiboNucleic Acid.

Synthetic mRNA is placed as a “messenger” in cells to direct the right protein production throughout the body.  It is basically teaching the immune system to provide protection against new “invaders.” The idea is not new; it was known before but researchers couldn’t tweak the mRNA without serious side effects.

In 1990 specialists at the University of Wisconsin attempted to make it work in mice.  It turned out that synthetic mRNA also produced an adverse and dangerous immune response.  Researches started to give up on the technology but Karikó kept insisting that it could work. She endured a fair share of rejection in the scientific community.

At the end, she was right.  The breakthrough came when Karikó, a biochemist and Drew Weissman, an immunologist made the key discovery at the University of Pennsylvania.  The novel solution was described as the “biological equivalent of swapping out a tire.”  In essence, they were able to eliminate the side-effects and opened up doors to the development of various new vaccines and drugs. The results were published in 2005 and they also secured critical patents.

BioNTech was founded in 2008 by Turkish-born Ugur Sahin and his wife, Özlem Türeci in Mainz, Germany.   They were among the few scientists who understood the tremendous potential of the Karikó-Weissman discovery and hired Karikó in 2013 to oversee the mRNA research.

The rest is history.  Using the new technology the small BioNTech, along with giant Pfizer, have developed the coronavirus vaccine.  US based Moderna’s vaccine is also based on the mRNA technology.

There is also an unrelated side story here.  Karikó’s daughter is Susan Francia, the US rowing legend who won Olympic gold medals in 2008 in Beijing and in 2012 in London.

Talented family….

Katalin Karikó was born in 1955 in Szolnok, Hungary. She studied biochemistry at the University of Szeged and worked as a researcher at the Biological Research Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged. In 1985 she continued her research at Temple University, Philadelphia and from 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2013 she moved to Germany to work for BioNtech. Her husband is Béla Francia. 

György Lázár

8 Comments

  1. Avatar Andrew Ludanyi says:

    Just to keep the record straight, Katalin Karikó was born in Kisújszállás (not far from Karcag) and not in Szolnok.

  2. This is also a fine example of how talent and perseverance pay off in free societies.

    • Agreed! Freedom has been a large factor in Western World Success. But perhaps not so free anymore. After all, in 2008 the EU economy (-UK) was three times larger than that of China’s. This year it looks like China will overtake the EU. Perhaps the end of freedom, replaced with ideological tyranny posing as freedom is starting to take its toll? Seems inferior to Chinese autocracy.

      After the Big Tech censorship fiasco, meant to fix the US election in conjunction with most of the US MSM and deep state shenanigans I think it would be more than a bit cynical to still try to proclaim a free society. Aparently Facebook already started replicating the US election model for the Hungarian election coming up by supressing news outlets that do not align with the Neo-Marxist agenda.

  3. Avatar Pierre Divenyi says:

    Fascinating. The story also shows the lack of imagination of the US granting agencies and their representatives, inextricably wedded to old ideas. And the small Turkish firm implementing Katalin’s idea is emblematic to what happened to bold research in the US in my field, speech science: first small and then large companies (Google, Microsoft, Apple, Dolby) jumping in and taking over, realizing that those novel ideas can also make money. A lot.

    But who is the gold medal winner in the picture?

  4. Avatar György Lázár says:

    Dear Mr. Ludányi, It is my understanding that she was born in Szolnok (probably in a hospital) but you are right, her family hails from Kisújszállás indeed… Magam is büszke alföldi gyerek vagyok..))

  5. Pingback: Fourth Sunday of Advent – homilies & reflections | br. mike dorn, ofm cap.

  6. I commented on my facebook page that Nobel Prize nominations are highly confidential, but readers can rest assured that third party information is definitely affirmative about very powerful supporters, aiming at the Award in Medicine. Considering that saving the lives of potentially hundreds of millions of people, it is an astounding medical accomplishment!

  7. Congratulations and I hope she will be getting the prize.

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