Leah Asmelash and AJ Willingham, CNN
Published Wednesday, December 16th, 2020 11:06 PM EST
COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to be rolled out in several countries, a progressive break that hopes to signal light at the end of this dark pandemic. For Katalin Karikó, the moment is particularly special.
Karikó has spent decades of her career exploring the therapeutic potential of mRNA, a component of DNA that is considered one of the key building blocks in life. Through many obstacles, job losses, doubt and movement across the ocean, Karikó stood by her conviction: mRNA could be used for something truly innovative. Now, that work is the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine.
From Hungary to the USA
Karikó, 65, began her career in native Hungary in the 1970s, when new mRNA research and opportunities looked endless. But the call of the American dream began (and more research and funding opportunities).
In 1985, she and her husband and young daughter left Hungary for the USA after receiving an invitation from Temple University in Philadelphia. They sold their car, Karikó told the Guardian, and filled the money – equivalent to about $ 1,200 – in their daughter’s teddy to keep it safe.
“We had just moved into our new apartment, our daughter was 2 years old, everything was so good, we were happy,” Karikó told the Hungarian news site G7 about how her family is gone. “But we had to go.”
She continued her research at Temple, and then at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. But by then, the flower was off the rose of an mRNA study, and Karikó’s idea that it could be used to fight disease was considered too radical, too financially risky to fund. She applied for grant after grant, but continued to receive a rejection, and in 1995, she was fired at UPenn. He was also diagnosed with cancer around the same time.
“Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” she told Stat, a health news site, in November. “I was thinking of going somewhere else, or doing something else. I was also thinking maybe I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough.”
From doubt to bankruptcy
But she grabbed him.
Finally, Karikó and her former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, Drew Weissman, developed a method of using synthetic mRNA to fight disease that involves altering the way the body makes fight material. virus, she explained on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time”.
That discovery is now the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine, and some have said that both Weissman and Karikó, who is now senior vice president of BioNTech, are based in Germany , deserving of the Nobel Prize.
“If anyone asked me who to vote for someday down the line, I would put them in front and in the middle,” Derek Rossi, one of the founders of the medicine giant Moderna, told Stat. “That basic discovery is about going into medicine that helps the world.”
While recognition, after all this time, has to be nice, Karikó says it’s not scientific glory that’s on her mind right now.
“Indeed, we celebrate when this human suffering is over, when this hardship and terrible time comes to an end, and hopefully in the summer when we forget about viruses and vaccines. And the then I really celebrate, “she told CNN ‘s Chris Cuomo.
Karikó said she plans to get the vaccine soon, along with Weissman, and said she is “very, very confident” it will work. In fact, it was their findings that contributed to it.
Meanwhile, Karikó said she gave herself a little permission to celebrate the news of the vaccine: a bag of Goobers, her favorite candy.