Katalin Karikó

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Katalin Karikó (Kati Kariko)

Katalin “Kati” Karikó, also known as Karikó Katalin in Hungarian pronunciation [ˈkɒrikoː ˌkɒtɒlin], born on January 17, 1955, is a Hungarian-American biochemist with expertise in the field of ribonucleic acid (RNA)-mediated mechanisms, particularly focusing on in vitro-transcribed messenger RNA (mRNA) for protein replacement therapy. Karikó laid the essential scientific foundation for mRNA vaccines, surmounting significant obstacles and skepticism within the scientific community. In recognition of her groundbreaking work, Karikó was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2023, alongside American immunologist Drew Weissman.

Karikó served as the co-founder and CEO of RNARx from 2006 to 2013. Subsequently, from 2013 to 2022, she was associated with BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, initially as a vice president and later promoted to the position of senior vice president in 2019. In 2022, she made the decision to depart from BioNTech to dedicate more time to her research endeavors. Furthermore, she held an adjunct professorship at the University of Pennsylvania and later became a professor at the University of Szeged in Hungary.

Karikó’s pioneering research encompassed the study of RNA-mediated immune activation, which led to the joint discovery with Drew Weissman of nucleoside modifications that reduce the immunogenicity of RNA. This breakthrough has significantly contributed to the therapeutic potential of mRNA technology. Together with Weissman, Karikó holds United States patents for the application of non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA. This groundbreaking technology has been licensed by BioNTech and Moderna for the development of their protein replacement technologies and was also instrumental in the creation of their COVID-19 vaccines.

The messenger RNA-based technology developed by Karikó, along with the two most effective vaccines derived from it—BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna—have formed the cornerstone of the global fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, making a substantial contribution to the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. For their remarkable contributions, Karikó and Weissman have received numerous prestigious awards, including the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, Time Magazine’s Hero of the Year for 2021, and the Tang Prize Award in Biopharmaceutical Science in 2022. Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó

Date of Birth

Birth Place

Nationality

University

Spouse

Children

17 January 1955

Szolnok, Hungary

Hungarian , United States [3]

 University of Szeged (BSc, PhD)

Béla Francia

 Susan

Katalin Karikó More

Known


mRNA technology in immunology and therapies

Awards


Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2023) and several others

Fields


  •  Biochemistry
  • RNA technologies

Early & Personal Life

Katalin Karikó’s upbringing in Kisújszállás, Hungary, was marked by modesty, as her family lived in a small home devoid of modern conveniences like running water, a refrigerator, or television. Her father worked as a butcher, while her mother pursued a career as a bookkeeper. Despite these humble beginnings, Karikó displayed an early aptitude for science and achieved a notable accomplishment during her primary education, securing third place in a biology competition, a remarkable achievement in Hungary.

In her pursuit of education, Karikó earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1978, followed by a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1982, both from the University of Szeged. She collaborated with Jenő Tomasz and continued her postdoctoral research at the Institute of Biochemistry within the Biological Research Centre (BRC) of Hungary. It is worth noting that during the years from 1978 to 1985, she found herself listed as an intelligence asset by the Communist Hungarian secret police, a circumstance she later revealed she had been coerced into due to fears of potential repercussions on her career or harm to her father. Importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that she provided any information or actively engaged as an agent.

In 1985, her research lab at the BRC faced a loss of funding, prompting Karikó to seek opportunities at institutions in other countries. She accepted a research position offered by Robert J. Suhadolnik of Temple University in the United States. With her husband and 2-year-old daughter, she embarked on a journey to the United States, which included a daring move—£900 smuggled inside her daughter’s teddy bear—funds they had acquired by selling their car and exchanging British pounds on the black market.

Katalin Karikó is married to Béla Francia, and together, they are the proud parents of Susan Francia, a two-time Olympic gold medalist rower. In February 2021, their joy was extended as they welcomed their grandson into the world in the United States, born to their daughter and son-in-law, architect Ryan Amos.

Active Career

Scientific Pioneer in mRNA Research and Development (1985-2013)

Between 1985 and 1988, Katalin Karikó’s journey as a postdoctoral fellow at Temple University in Philadelphia marked the beginning of her groundbreaking work in the field of messenger RNA (mRNA). During this time, she played a pivotal role in a clinical trial that explored the treatment of patients afflicted with AIDS, hematologic diseases, and chronic fatigue syndrome using double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). At that point in time, the molecular mechanism of interferon induction by dsRNA remained shrouded in mystery, despite the well-documented antiviral and antineoplastic effects of interferon.

Transitioning to the period between 1988 and 1989, Karikó’s research took her to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, where she delved into the realm of signal protein interferons.

In 1989, the University of Pennsylvania offered her an opportunity to collaborate with cardiologist Elliot Barnathan on mRNA research. It was here that she submitted her first grant application in 1990, envisioning the establishment of mRNA-based gene therapy. Despite experiencing a downturn in the popularity of mRNA research during the 1990s, characterized by skepticism from researchers, biotech companies, and pharmaceutical firms, Karikó tenaciously pursued her vision. Even after facing repeated grant rejections and a demotion from her path to full professorship in 1995 at the university, she remained steadfast in her commitment to mRNA research.

Pioneering mRNA-Based Therapies (1997-2005)

In 1997, a transformative encounter took place when Karikó crossed paths with Drew Weissman, a professor of immunology newly arrived at the University of Pennsylvania. This partnership, fueled by Weissman’s critical funding support, enabled Karikó to further her research. Their journey was marked by persistent determination, as they confronted challenges one by one.

Before 2005, a significant obstacle in the therapeutic use of mRNA was its tendency to provoke inflammatory reactions when administered in vivo. Karikó’s breakthrough occurred when she investigated why transfer RNA (tRNA), employed as a control in experiments, did not trigger the same immune response as mRNA. Beginning in 2005, a series of seminal studies revealed that while synthetic mRNA was highly inflammatory, transfer RNA (tRNA) remained noninflammatory. Karikó and Weissman’s groundbreaking discovery of specific nucleoside modifications in mRNA that reduced the immune response was initially met with rejection by journals such as Nature and Science but eventually gained acceptance in Immunity.

Founding RNARx, Patenting Innovations, and Collaboration (2006-2013)

Karikó and Weissman’s collaborative efforts led to the establishment of RNARx, a small company, where they secured patents in 2006 and 2013 for using various modified nucleosides to mitigate the antiviral immune response to mRNA. Subsequently, the University of Pennsylvania transferred the intellectual property license to Gary Dahl, the head of a lab supply company that later became Cellscript. Flagship Pioneering, a venture capital firm backing Moderna, approached Karikó in hopes of licensing the patent, only to discover it was no longer available.

In 2006, Karikó initiated contact with biochemist Ian MacLachlan to explore the possibilities of chemically altered mRNA. Initially met with reluctance by MacLachlan and Tekmira, this collaboration would later prove crucial. Karikó’s focus at the time was on establishing a formulated lipid nanoparticle delivery system for encapsulating mRNA in dense particles through a mixing process.

By early 2013, Karikó’s determination led her to the realization that her mRNA expertise wouldn’t find ample opportunity to thrive at the University of Pennsylvania. Consequently, she accepted the role of vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, eventually rising to senior vice president in 2019, all while maintaining an adjunct professorship at the University.

Scientific Contributions

Karikó’s research and expertise have far-reaching implications across a spectrum of fields, including the generation of pluripotent stem cells, messenger RNA-based gene therapy, and the development of a novel class of pharmaceuticals.

Her pioneering work laid the fundamental groundwork for companies like BioNTech and Moderna to create therapeutic mRNA molecules that do not trigger an immune response. Notably, in 2020, the groundbreaking technology developed by Karikó and Weissman played a pivotal role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines produced in collaboration with BioNTech and Pfizer, as well as by Moderna. These mRNA vaccines underwent an unprecedented rapid development process and received approval for use, demonstrating remarkable efficacy levels exceeding 90%.

Beyond their application in vaccines for infectious diseases, mRNA-based therapies hold immense potential in treating a wide range of conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and metabolic disorders such as ischemia. Karikó’s visionary contributions have ushered in a new era of medical innovation, opening doors to novel treatment approaches that were once considered groundbreaking and now stand as transformative solutions for various healthcare challenges.

Awards and Nominations

Katalin Karikó has been recognized with an impressive array of over 130 international awards and honors in recognition of her groundbreaking contributions to the field of biochemistry.

A momentous milestone in her illustrious career occurred on October 2, 2023, when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made a historic announcement. They awarded the prestigious 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman in honor of their pioneering work in the development of mRNA technology. This recognition solidified their exceptional impact on the world of science and medicine.

Furthermore, in 2023, Karikó’s remarkable achievements led to her induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a testament to her profound contributions to the field of messenger RNA research. Her induction serves as a lasting tribute to her dedication and innovative spirit, inspiring future generations of inventors and scientists.

Before and In 2020

  • Népköztársasági ösztöndíj – Government of the Hungarian People’s Republic – 1975–1978
  • Honorary Citizen of Kisújszállás – Kisújszállás Municipal Council – 2009
  • Distinguished Citizen of Kisújszállás  Kisújszállás Municipal Council
  • Közmédia Év Embere Díj – MTVA
  • Research!America – Outstanding Achievement in Public Health Awards – Drew Weissman
  • Rosenstiel Award 2020 – Brandeis University – Drew Weissman
  • Volkswagen Kék Innovációs Különdíj -Menedzserek Országos Szövetsége –
  • Member – Academia Europea –

In 2021

  • 100 People Transforming Business – Insider
  • Albany Medical Center Prize – Albany Medical – Barney Graham, Drew Weissman
  • Princess of Asturias Award – Princess of Asturias Foundation – Drew Weissman, Philip Felgner, Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Derrick Rossi, Sarah Gilbert
  • BIAL Award in Biomedicine – BIAL Foundation – Drew Weissman
  • Bill Foege Award – MAP International – Anthony Fauci, Carlos del Rio
  • Bolyai János alkotói díj – Bolyai-díj Alapítvány
  • Csongrád-Csanád megye díszpolgára – Csongrád-Csanád Megyei Önkormányzat
  • Debrecen Díj a Molekuláris Orvostudományért – University of Debrecen
  • Dr. Paul Janssen Award – Johnson & Johnson – Drew Weissman
  • Fodor József-díj – Hungarian Society of Hygiene
  • Forbes No.1 (entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists, creators; 50+) – Forbes
  • Frontiers Awards – BBVA Foundation, Bilbao – Drew Weissman and Robert Langer
  • German Future Prize – Federal President for Technology and Innovation – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Christoph Huber
  • Golden Goose – National Institutes of Health, Tennessee – Drew Weissman
  • Golden Plate Award – Academy of Achievement
  • Grande Médaille – French Academy of Sciences
  • Great Immigrant Great American Award 2021 – Carnegie Corporation of New York
  • Harvey Prize – Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – Drew Weissman, Pieter Cullis
  • Human Dignity Award – Council of Human Dignity
  • Inventor of the Year IPOEF – Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Drew Weissman
  • Inventors of the Year PCI – Penn Center of
  • Innovation – Drew Weissman
  • Jedlik Ányos-díj – Hungarian Intellectual Property Office – Imre Dékány, Andrea Fekete, András Kotschy, András Szecskay
  • John J. Carlin Service Award – USRowing
  • John Scott Award – Philadelphia University – Drew Weissman
  • Keio Medical Science Prize 2021 – Keio University – Osamu Nureki
  • Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award – Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation – Drew Weissman
  • L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award – UNESCO – María Guadalupe Guzmán Tirado, Hailan Hu, Agnès Binagwaho, María Ángela Nieto Toledano
  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize – Columbia University – Drew Weissman
  • Magyar Lélek Díj – Hungarian Magyar Club of Chicago
  • New York Academy of Medicine – New York Academy of Medicine – Drew Weissman
  • Novo Nordisk Prize – Novo Nordisk Foundation – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Drew Weissman
  • Pioneer Award – Precision Medicine World Conference (PMWC) 2021
  • Prima Díj – Vállalkozók és Munkáltatók Országos Szövetsége Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Megyei Szervezete
  • Prince Mahidol Award – Prince Mahidol Award Foundation under the Royal Patronage, Bangkok – Drew Weissman, Pieter Cullis
  • Princess Marina Sturdza Award – Emerging Europe Council – Sir Suma Chakrabarti
  • Reichstein Medal – Swiss Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences (SAPhS)
  • Semmelweis-díj – EMMI
  • Stem Cell Hero NYSCF – The New York Stem Cell Foundation – Derrick Rossi, Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, Drew Weissman
  • Straub-plakett – Biological Research Centre (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Szeged
  • Széchenyi Prize – Government of Hungary
  • Szeged Város Díszpolgára – Szeged Megyei Jogú Város Önkormányzata
  • Theodor Boveri Award – University of Würzburg
  • Time 100 – The 100 Most Influential People of 2021 – Time magazine
  • Time – 2021 Heroes of the Year – Time magazine – Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham and Drew Weissman
  • Tudományos Prima különdíj – Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Megye
  • VinFuture Grand Prize – VinFuture Foundation – DrewWeissman, Pieter Cullis
  • Wilhelm Exner Medal – Austrian Industrial Association – Luisa Torsi
  • William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology – Cancer Research Institute – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Drew Weissman
  • Women of the Year – Glamour Magazine
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the University of Szeged
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from Duke University – Drew Weissman, Ken Jeong, Mary Schmidt Campbell
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Humanitas University of Milan
  • Member – AAAS Fellows – American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Foreign Member – French Académie des sciences – William Timothy Gowers, Martin Hairer, Anne L’Huillier, Wolfgang Wernesdorfer, Annalisa Buffa, Yann Le Cun, Susan Brantley, Frank Eisenhauer, Sason Shaik, Nicola Spaldin, Nicole King, Alberto R. Kornblihtt , Angela Nieto, Eva H. Stukenbrock, Cédric Blanpain
  • Hawking Fellow – Cambridge Union

In 2022

  • Beacon Award of Trustees’ Council of Penn Women – PennAlumni of University of Pennsylvania
  • Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science – The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia – Drew Weissman
  • Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences 2022 – Breakthrough Prize Foundation – Drew Weissman
  • Camurus Lipid Science Prize – Camurus Lipid Research Foundation
  • Canada Gairdner International Awards – Drew Weissman and Pieter Cullis
  • German Immunology Prize – German Society for Immunology – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci
  • Emilia Chiancone Medal – Accademia Nazionale delle Scienze, Roma
  • Empowering Research and Discovery Award – National Disease Research Interchange (NDRI) – Drew Weissman
  • European Inventor Award for Lifetime achievement – European Patent Office
  • Golden Arrow – Vienna Congress com.sult 2022 – Anna Kiesenhofer
  • Harold Berger Award – Penn Engineering, University of Pennsylvania – Drew Weissman
  • Helmholtz Medal 2022 – Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities
  • Japan Prize – Japan Prize Foundation – Drew Weissman
  • Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Megye Díszpolgára Díj – Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Megyei Közgyűlés
  • Jeantet-Collen Prize for Medicine – Louis-Jeantet Alapítvány, Genf – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci
  • Jessie Stevenson Kovalenko Medal – National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Washington – Drew Weissman
  • Kati, szeretünk!-díj – Kisújszállási civilek
  • Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine – Louis-Jeantet Foundation, Geneva – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci
  • Lindhal Lecture – Neurovations
  • Matis Family Investigator Award – Drs. Louis and Lyn Matis – Penn Institute for Immunology – Drew Weissman
  • Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Award – Dubai Culture and Arts Authority – Zhang Yongzhen, Drew Weissman
  • National Inventors Hall of Fame – The United States Patent and Trademark Office & The National Inventors Hall of Fame – Drew Weissman
  • Park MahnHoon Award – International Vaccine Institute & SK bioscience – Tore Godal, Drew Weissman
  • Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize – The Paul Ehrlich Foundation – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci
  • Pearl Meister Greengard Prize – Rockefeller University
  • Peter Speiser Award – Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences of ETH Zurich
  • Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce Award – Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce – Drew Weissman
  • Ross Prize in Molecular Medicine – Feinstein Institute – Drew Weissman
  • SBMT Award – Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics
  • Semmelweis Budapest Award – Semmelweis Egyetem
  • Solvay Prize – Solvay S.A.
  • Stanford University Drug Discovery Lifetime Achievement Award – Stanford University
  • Status List 2022 – STAT – Editor’s Pick
  • Szegedért Alapítvány – Fődíj – Szegedért Alapítvány
  • Szent-Gizella-díj – Civil Szeretet Kurázsi Társaság
  • Tang Prize – Academia Sinica, Taiwan – Drew Weissman and Pieter Cullis
  • Vilcek Prize for Excellence in Biotechnology – Vilcek Foundation
  • Warren Alpert Prize – Harvard Medical School – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Drew Weissman, Eric Huang
  • Werner von Siemens Ring – The Werner von Siemens Ring Foundation – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, Christoph Huber
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Eötvös Loránd University Budapest
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Radboud University
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Rockefeller University – Anthony Fauci, Lulu C. Wang
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Tel Aviv University – Cornelia Bargmann, Sir Michael Victor Berry, Barbara Engelking, Eric J. Gertler, James S. Gertler, Bernd Friedrich Huber, Jodi Kantor, Solomon Lew, Jehuda Reinharz, Jürgen Renn
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Université libre de Bruxelles
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the University of Geneva – Susan M. Gasser, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Ananya Roy
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from the Yale University – Caroline Shaw, Krista Tippett, Madeleine Albright, James Clyburn, Jill Lepore, Myron Thompson, Jean Bennett, Drew Weissman, Orlando Patterson
  • Member – German National Academy of Sciences – German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
  • Member – Hungarian Academy of Sciences
  • Member – National Academy of Inventors
  • Member – National Academy of Medicine – Washington

In 2023

  • 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – Drew Weissman
  • Cameron Award – University of Edinburgh – Drew Weissman
  • Dawson Award in Genetics – Smurfit Institute of Genetics in Trinity
  • Faces of American Innovation – Bayh-Dole Coalition – Yan Wang, Peter Stern, Dennis Liotta, Carol Mimuras
  • Genius Award – New Jersey City University – John C. Mather, Uma Valeti
  • Hungarian Order of Saint Stephen – Katalin Novák, President of the Republic of Hungary
  • Jonathan E. Rhoads Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Medicine – American Philosophical Society – Drew Weissman
  • LIV Jiménez Díaz Commemorative Lecture – Fundación Jiménez Díaz (FJD)
  • Meyenburg Prize – Helmholtz Institute for Translational Oncology (HI-TRON) – Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci
  • Neumann János Prize – Budapest University of Technology and Economics and John von Neumann Computer Society
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from Brandeis University
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from University College Cork – National University of Ireland, Cork (UCC)
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from Harvard University – David Levering Lewis, Michael Mullen, Jennifer Doudna, Hugo Noé Morales Rosas, Tom Hanks
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from Princeton University – Lynn A. Conway, Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, Rhiannon Giddens, Suzan Shown Harjo
  • Received Doctor of Science as an honorary degree from Rutgers University
  • Honorary Doctor of Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Member – European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)

Media Exposure & Memory

In April 2021, The New York Times featured her illustrious career, highlighting its pivotal role in laying the foundation for mRNA vaccines that would ultimately combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 10, 2021, The Daily podcast from The New York Times shed light on Karikó’s remarkable journey, underscoring the myriad challenges she surmounted before her groundbreaking contributions gained the recognition they deserved.

In 2023, two children’s books were introduced to the world, both dedicated to her inspiring story: “Never Give Up: Dr. Kati Karikó and the Race for the Future of Vaccines” by Debbie Dadey and Juliana Oakley, and “Kati’s Tiny Messengers: Dr. Katalin Karikó and the Battle Against COVID-19” by Megan Hoyt and Vivien Mildenberger. Additionally, on October 10, her eagerly anticipated memoir, titled “Breaking Through: My Life in Science,” is slated for publication by Crown.

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