The foundation of the COVID-19 vaccine, and many others, can be drawn back to the work of an intrepid immigrant to the United States from Hungary, whose never-say-die attitude and belief in her work led to one of the most important technological developments in vaccine research.
Now hailed as a groundbreaking scientist, Katalin Karikó grew up an immigrant. Often doubted professionally by her colleagues, Karikó’s research helped provide the foundations for the COVID-19 vaccine. Karikó was among the first to develop mRNA and RNA-derived therapies and vaccines.
When Karikó left her native Hungary with husband and young child, she had just $1,200. Now, after years of researching mRNA and RNA technologies, she is the senior vice-president of BioNTech.
Despite holding a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Szeged, she grappled with unemployment. During that time, Karikó continued pioneering messenger RNA research using a virus’s genetic materials.
Karikó’s struggles continued when she was demoted from her position at the University of Pennsylvania and received a cancer diagnosis.
Karikó said, “Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible. I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else. I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough.”
However, in 2012 Karikó’s luck began to turn. She and co-researcher immunologist Drew Weissman received patents for their mRNA technology. After receiving the patents, Karikó began working for BioNTech, a German pharmaceutical giant, which would develop one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines.
The pair have already received the prestigious Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medicine and they are also being talked about for the Nobel Prize.
The Director of the Rosenstiel Center for Research on Basic Medical Sciences said, “Through their painstaking research into mRNA—and persistence despite setbacks— Weissman and Karikó laid the groundwork for vaccines that will save countless lives.”
Karikó’s story is a reminder that with hard work, people can all achieve whatever they put their mind to.