Here’s the amazing story of grit and perseverance about the woman who did the pioneering work for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine.
Katalin Karikó, born in Hungary
Temple University & University of Pennsylvania
Timeline: Development of Vaccine by Katalin Karikó:
- 1955: Katalin Karikó was born in Hungary
- 1976: She hears about ideas of using mRNA to target viruses while an undergrad at the University of Szegedin Hungary.
- She completes her Ph.D.
- 1985: As an immigrant from Hungary, Katalin Karikó immigrated to the US to do research at Temple University.
- After a dispute with her boss, Temple University tried to have her deported.
- She switched to the University of Pennsylvania, but her research was not considered promising because there were significant challenges in getting the immune system to accept the mRNA that the vaccine uses.
- The mid-1990s — She failed to get funding for her work at the University of Pennsylvania and was forced to choose between stopping work on her mRNA research or be demoted from a track to be a full professor.
- She chose to be demoted and continue her research.
- UPenn’s ultimatum was posed just after she had been diagnosed with cancer.
- She persisted and was able to get her research funded with the help of an established immunology professor — Drew Weissman — who she met at the photocopier.
- In the early 2000s: she read a study that gave her an idea of how to avoid the adverse immune system reaction that prevented mRNA from being used in vaccines.
- 2005: Karikó and Weissman published a study suggesting that there may be a way to avoid the immune reaction.
- After publishing their research and patenting it, they received no invitations to talk about their work.
- But Derrick Rossi, a postdoc at Stanford University noticed their research and created a company called Moderna in 2010 to commercialize the technology.
- Karikó and Weissman licensed their technology to a small German company called BioNTech, after five years of trying and failing. (BioNTech was founded by a Turkish immigrant named Ugur Sahin)
- 2013: UPenn refused to reinstate Katalin Karikó as a full professor after demoting her in 1995. She told them she was leaving to go to BioNTech: ”When I told them I was leaving, they laughed at me and said, ‘BioNTech doesn’t even have a website.’”
- 2017: Moderna (founded by the Derrick Rossi Stanford postdoc) used the technology Karikó pioneered to develop a Zika virus.
- 2018: The German company Karikó and Weissman licensed their technology to partnered with Pfizer to develop an influenza vaccine.
- April 2020: Derrick Rossi’s Moderna received $483 million (£360m) from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to fast-track its Covid-19 vaccine program
- Pfizer developed their mRNA vaccine using Karikó and Weissman research, but without government funding.
1) Read full “Wired” article:
2) A former student shares his personal experience with Katalin Karikó and the challenges she had to overcome.