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Katalin Kariko, the Scientist Behind the Groundbreaking mRNA Vaccines

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2021

The NY Times has a profile of Dr. Katalin Kariko, who struggled for decades against a system unwilling to consider and fund her ideas about how messenger RNA could be used to instruct cells inside human bodies to “make their own medicines”. Her work has culminated in two highly effective vaccines for Covid-19 and is being extended to produce possible vaccines for HIV, the flu, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Now Katalin Kariko, 66, known to colleagues as Kati, has emerged as one of the heroes of Covid-19 vaccine development. Her work, with her close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, laid the foundation for the stunningly successful vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

For her entire career, Dr. Kariko has focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA — the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She was convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.

Stat also wrote a piece about Kariko and the development of the mRNA vaccines. It seems like Kariko will be strongly considered for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her achievements. The Covid vaccines will save hundreds of thousands of lives alone, and if mRNA can indeed be harnessed to protect against HIV and malaria, the effect on the world will be immense. Give Kariko all the prizes and whatever she wants to be happy in life — she’s earned it and more.

Update: From Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, How mRNA Technology Could Change the World.

But mRNA’s story likely will not end with COVID-19: Its potential stretches far beyond this pandemic. This year, a team at Yale patented a similar RNA-based technology to vaccinate against malaria, perhaps the world’s most devastating disease. Because mRNA is so easy to edit, Pfizer says that it is planning to use it against seasonal flu, which mutates constantly and kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year. The company that partnered with Pfizer last year, BioNTech, is developing individualized therapies that would create on-demand proteins associated with specific tumors to teach the body to fight off advanced cancer. In mouse trials, synthetic-mRNA therapies have been shown to slow and reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis. “I’m fully convinced now even more than before that mRNA can be broadly transformational,” Özlem Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, told me. “In principle, everything you can do with protein can be substituted by mRNA.”