The obsession of the Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko by studying a substance called mRNA to fight disease once cost him a faculty position at a prestigious U.S. university, which dismissed the idea as a dead end.
Now, it may be her original work – which paved the way for Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines – that is saving the world from a 100-year pandemic.
“This is just kind of unbelievable,” she told AFP in a video call from her home in Philadelphia, adding that she was not used to attention after thatching for years in obscurity.
He explains why “it is important that science should be supported on many levels. “
Kariko, 65, spent much of the 1990s writing donation applications to fund her research into “messenger ribonucleic acid” – genetic molecules that tell cells what proteins they make, essential for keeping our bodies healthy. alive and well.
She believed that mRNA was a key way to treat diseases where more of the right type of protein would help – such as repairing the brain after a stroke.
But the University of Pennsylvania, where Kariko was on his way to a doctorate, decided to pull the plug after the refusal to collect donations.
“I was up for a raise, and then they were just deceiving me and expecting me to walk out the door,” she said.
Kariko did not yet have a green card and needed to work to renew his visa. She also knew she would not be able to get her daughter through college without the big discount from the staff.
She decided to continue as a researcher with a lower run, scrambling for a small salary.
It was a low point of life and career, but “I was just thinking … you know, the bench (lab) is here, I need to do better tests,” she said.
The experience shaped her philosophy for dealing with adversity in all aspects of life.
“Think through it and then at the end, you have to say ‘What can I do?’
“Because then you won’t spend your life.”
The decision runs in the family – her daughter Susan Francia went to Penn, where she earned a Master’s degree, and won gold medals with the U.S. Olympic rowing team in 2008 and 2012.
Inside the body, mRNA delivers to cells the guidance stored in DNA, the molecules that carry all of our genetic codes.
By the late 1980s, much of the scientific community was focused on using DNA to deliver gene therapy, but Kariko believed that mRNA was also promising because most diseases are not hereditary and do not require solutions that permanently change our genetics.
Initially, however, she had to overcome a major problem: in animal experiments, synthetic mRNA caused a major inflammatory response as the immune system sensed an attacker and ran to fight.
Kariko, along with her main colleague Drew Weissman, discovered that one of the four building blocks of the synthetic mRNA was to blame – and they were able to overcome the problem by turning it off. with modified version.
They published a paper on the breakdown in 2005. Then, in 2015, they found a new way to deliver mRNA to mice, using a fat coating called “lipid nanoparticles” that prevents the mRNA from breaking down. shrink, and helps to put it inside the right part. of cells.
Both of these innovations were fundamental to the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, of which Kariko is now senior vice president, as well as the designs made by Moderna.
Both work by directing human cells to make surface proteins of the coronavirus, which is similar to an infection and training the immune system for when it comes into contact with the real virus.
The mRNA decays rapidly and the direction it gives the body is not permanent, making the technology a suitable platform for a number of applications, Kariko said.
These could range from new flu vaccines, being developed more quickly and effectively than the conventional generation, to new disease treatments.
For example, AstraZeneca is currently working on mRNA treatment for patients with heart failure, which provides signaling proteins that stimulate the production of new blood vessels.
Although she doesn’t want to overdo it, as a foreign-born woman in a male-dominated field, she occasionally felt under-estimated – saying that people would come after speeches and asking “Who is your leader?”
“They always thought, ‘That woman with the accent, there must be someone behind her who is softer or something,'” she said.
Now, if all goes well with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it’s not hard to imagine a Nobel Prize committee rewarding Kariko and other mRNA researchers.
That would be a stumbling block for Kariko, whom her late mother would call her every year after the announcement to ask why she was not elected.
“I never receive grants (federal) in my life, I’m not a man, not even a faculty,” she laughed. Until her mother replies: “But you work so hard!”
Experimental mRNA vaccines emerge as pandemic predators
© 2020 AFP
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