Face to face with Katalin Karikó, the scientist and vice president of BioNTech to whom we owe the Pfizer and Moderna’s antidotes to the coronavirus


Many today mention her name as a future Nobel Prize winner, but Katalin Karikó’s path has not been as linear as one might imagine. If today we have a coronavirus vaccine, we owe it largely to her obsession.

Face to face with Katalin Karikó, the scientist and vice president of BioNTech to whom we owe the Pfizer and Moderna’s antidotes to the coronavirus
‘Without the vaccine you would never even have heard my name’

Face to face with Katalin Karikó, the scientist and vice president of BioNTech to whom we owe the Pfizer and Moderna’s antidotes to the coronavirus

‘Without the vaccine you would never even have heard my name’

with the kind collaboration of Dina Aletras

I am so happy that I am almost afraid of dying

Yet these were precisely the words she uttered, in front of the first recent calls received from the media. All of a sudden a highly sought after researcher. We talked about her will to live. A desire that also emerges in her way of communicating. We met via Skype for a long chat. She answered in her own style, cheerfully disheveled, a river full of words that clashes with her nature as a scientist. She herself admits: ‘I don’t know if you know any scientists directly. They are not generally looking for money and fame, they are often very reserved, caring, sometimes a bit strange, but usually good people, not used to the front pages and then?’

‘And then we look forward. Science should never look back. On the other hand, we rarely see publications that speak of goals already achieved in the past. We always look forward. The past is the past. I myself am used to thinking about what I can still do, not about what I have achieved’.

mRNA in everyday life

In this case, it is the media that look to the past, to find traces of a unique personal history, transformed into a common good and this only thanks to her work, her studies, her tenacity. We realize it today, but science had already got there. The discussions around messenger RNA, however complex, have entered everyday life. In the scientific world they weren’t born yesterday. Quite on the contrary. Karikó herself tells us: ‘The pandemic has brought the issue to the surface, but the studies were very advanced in various fields, just think of the fight against the flu’. In short, at the center of everything is messenger RNA - what we have often seen for a few weeks now in its abbreviated formula: mRNA -, the molecule that encodes and carries instructions into cells, in order to encourage them to produce proteins. Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines.

Karikó is senior vice president of BioNTech - and Moderna are based on this molecule. But beware, no mRNA-based vaccine has ever been previously authorized for large-scale use. Hence, many of the questions about the safety of these products arose. In short, Karikó’s obsessive idea was to use mRNA to ‘convince’ cells to produce proteins of their choice, in this case an antigen, which would then be taken over by our immune system, which produces antibodies . Yes, but the road that led this idea to its practical realization - and to the respective fame of the doctor - was long, we would say tortuous.

One thousand dollars in the teddy bear

Born in 1955, Katalin Karikó was born and raised in a small Hungarian town, developing a deep interest in biology from an early age. An interest that filled her studies in Szeged, and which she made her profession, first at the local research center and then in America. Yes, America, at the very distant time. It was 1985, she was thirty and a had a daughter of two and her husband was an engineer. The Wall had not yet been torn down. Faced with the invitation from Temple University in Philadelphia, however, she did not resist: reaching the United States would have represented a unique opportunity to push beyond her obsession. Selling her car on the black market and, with the cash ($ 1,200) hidden in her daughter’s teddy bear, she traveled to the East Coast of the States. She didn’t know anyone in Philadelphia, and had some language problems. But she went for it.

I grew up in a house without running water, a television and a refrigerator. This for the first ten years of my life. I didn’t even know there could be another way to live. I thought everyone lived like this.

Today we remind you, that telling the story of the scientist behind a certain discovery is a way in our opinion to humanize science, to break down other walls, those between knowledge and natural ignorance of matter. In short, the vaccine, this vaccine, represents our present but above all the future of the society in which we live. However, she tells us herself, she tells us about her childhood. ‘I grew up in a house without running water, a television and a refrigerator. This for the first ten years of my life. I didn’t even know there could be another way to live. I thought everyone lived like this’.

Stalls and restarts

We talked about his run-up. Here, it comes from there. ‘Once at university, I realized that I was quite behind in my studies, starting with languages, especially English. At 19, I started learning a few words, some expressions. And the same goes for chemistry. Many of my classmates had already studied it in their respective schools, but I didn’t. I was constantly trying to catch up with others. I was behind, but I focused solely on what I had to do, not on thinking about why I was behind. My parents had done what they could. It is useless to look at the past. I remember spending a whole summer on English books: by the time I resumed, I was the best in class. But I never focused on others, neither then nor today. The same goes for research, science and when no progress is made the question to ask is: what should I do then, what should I change? Because inevitably, if you don’t advance, it’s because you have to do something different’. Doctor Karikó continues reading her diary of memories. ‘I was in high school, I read a Hungarian book and, for the first time, I remember, I found the word ‘stress’ used to describe the emotional state of a character. Well, I dwellede on that book. It marked me. The author stressed that people often waste time wondering ‘what if...?’ and he described this attitude as a behavior to be avoided. We must not dwell on ‘but if...’ - he wrote -, on what others think or do. You can’t change them. Rather, when faced with a doubt, a problem, we need to think about possible solutions. Every discussion in our lives must end with another question: ‘Okay, what’s the solution?’ So I started thinking that when people don’t understand, it’s because maybe I haven’t been able to explain myself well enough. And then I have to explain myself better, I have to do more experiments and become more confident. If I channel the energy into what I can do, then I won’t waste time on useless thoughts. I was sixteen, but it’s a concept I’ve always kept in mind’. It refers to her academic history, the history of her studies, among so many moments of stalemate, descents and ascents.

Her challenge seemed lost

The subject of her research is crucial: mRNA. Back there. We return to an obstacle that at a certain point seemed to have become insurmountable. And Katalin Karikó’s career had therefore run aground. The human organism in fact has various control systems to prevent potentially harmful information from reaching cells from the outside. And such control systems then produce the relative defenses. And here is strong inflammatory reactions and new potential risks. Karikó’s obsession therefore arises from there, from the search for a solution to this problem, which would allow the artificial molecules to be accepted, accepted and not rejected by the organism. For many of her colleagues and superiors, a lost challenge, impossible to win. So much waste accumulated by the doctor, so many ultimatums received, too many steps down. At one point, the leaders of the University of Pennsylvania confronted her with a choice: if you want to continue working with mRNA, you must leave your position in the faculty (giving up a slice of the salary). That same week - with her husband returning to Hungary with a visa problem - she was diagnosed with cancer. But she decided to accept the downgrade, just to continue on the path she herself marked. And one day she met Drew Weissman, an immunologist, biochemist by training. A decisive meeting. It was 1997. Weissman, Karikó herself tells us, ‘was working on a vaccine for HIV and, like me, he saw a possible solution in mRNA’. Like a spark before an explosion, which took place eight years later, in 2005, with the publication of a study then deemed revolutionary. ‘The solution: assemble the modified RNA, however, replacing uridine - one of the chemical compounds that make up the mRNA strands - with pseudouridine, a variant tolerated by the body’. A deception for a good purpose.

Messenger RNA is not injected into the veins, but into the muscle, it does not replicate and does not multiply in the body

People want to understand

A deception that is now necessary - and that our body can only accept - to fight the coronavirus. That intuition got vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2. A huge satisfaction for Katalin Karikó. ‘Yes, but now it’s time to keep accelerating, because the pace seems too slow. Since I started answering your question, in those thirty seconds, twenty people have died from the virus. It’s terrible. So you have to run. In the United States, there is no vaccine reticence that Europe is talking about. Sure, someone objects, but simply because they don’t understand. First they were told that the virus did not exist, then the opposite, they are confused. And now in fact some people still believe the virus does not exist and that the Earth is flat’, she smiles bitterly. ‘People want explanations. This is where the media come into play, you, called to simplify concepts that in scientific terms would be too complicated. Our role is another, and should not be lived in the spotlight, chasing fame and rich rewards. Science is making great strides, but at the same time the knowledge of the population should be nourished’.

Out of the pandemic in the summer

With Katalin Karikó we focus on the position of those who do not intend to be vaccinated. She does not break down and, rather than focusing on who knows what rhetorical messages, she explains: ‘The messenger RNA is not injected into the veins, but into the muscle, it does not replicate and does not multiply in the body. And then you have to imagine a grain of rice, imagine breaking it into a thousand pieces. Here, a quantity similar to one of those small pieces of the grain of rice is injected, which enters the muscle and immune cells surrounding the injection point, inducing the production of protein S and subsequently the actual immune reaction. We are talking about thirty micrograms, a tiny amount, which will lead, after ten days, to a protection level of 90%. Up to now, 2 have been vaccinated between the USA and Great Britain, 6 million people. Only seven has had an allergic reaction, none of them died. The reactions are usually instantaneous. On the other hand, enormous amounts of preliminary information had been collected. Rather we don’t know how long these vaccines will be effective. In all cases the memory cells will ‘remember’ the infection by the virus and through the eventual re-exposure to the virus itself they will trigger a protective immune response’. We said it, not really a pro-vaccine motto, but a scientific explanation that sounds like a guarantee. Although in the end she adds: ‘These vaccines will get us out of the pandemic. In the summer we will probably be able to return to normal life’.

The advantage of BioNTech?

We ask Katalin Karikó if there is a reason why the first vaccine we use is from Pfizer / BioNTech and not from Moderna. Basically the methodology is the same. ‘They are actually very similar. The proteins, the work on them, the same amino acids. This was in fact what science dictated. But thirty milligrams of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine are enough, of others one hundred. Because?’. And here the doctor smiles: ‘Because I work at BioNTech’. A joke, but in the end not too much. Karikó became vice president of the American pharmaceutical company - with the task of overseeing research projects around mRNA - in 2013, thus twenty years after the darkest period of her life and career. It makes you smile thinking back to that period, in which - she tells me - I wandered around the University of Pennsylvania like a sort of bugbear in the eyes of my colleagues, I didn’t even have to sell who knows what magic formula. Yet I was looking for partners to build the future. ‘I used to take my mRNA studies with me everywhere. I went to Buffalo, Chicago, to experiment. Still, if this vaccine hadn’t arrived, you probably never would have heard of me. It is sad that many scientists often find themselves in a position to give up, because they are not adequately supported and financed’.

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