The Hungarian immigrant behind RNA messenger, Covid-19 vaccine key

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Hungarian scientist Katalin Kariko’s obsession with 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 progressive work – which paved the way for the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines – that is saving the world from a 100-year pandemic.

“This is just 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.

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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 his research into “messenger ribonucleic acid” – genetic molecules that tell cells what proteins they make, essential for the survival of our bodies and healthy.

She believed that mRNA was a key way to treat diseases where more of the right type of protein can help – such as repairing the brain after a stroke.

Illustrative. Syringe and bottle reading ‘COVID-19 Vaccine’ next to Pfizer company logo, November 23, 2020. (JOEL SAGET / AFP)

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 put me down and expected 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 thought… 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 of that you don’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.

Two breaks

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.

Sandra Lindsay (L), a nurse at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, has been admitted to the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, on December 14, 2020, in the borough of Queens in New York. (Mark Lennihan / Pool / AFP)

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 fracture 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, where 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.

New treatments

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 an understatement – saying that people would come after speeches and “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. Her mother replied: “But you work so hard!”

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